Trinity 15 (17.9.2023)
There is a mind-set which takes pride in always being right and in condemning those who are, by its reckoning, wrong. It is to be found among most religions – even Buddhism is not immune: ask Muslims or Christians in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. It is certainly to be found among Christians of every denomination. Anglican debates about human sexuality in recent years have provided enough evidence of that. We call it “self-righteousness” and tend to think of it as annoying but mainly harmless. And clearly it is a mind-set which can be found in any age.
Take today’s New Testament reading, for example. Reading between the lines, it seems clear that there is a feud going on in Rome between a vegetarian faction and the meat-eaters in the congregation. It’s a feud which had quite a sharp theological edge, because most of the meat which was eaten in the Mediterranean world of the first century came from animals which had been sacrificed to pagan gods and was therefore off-limits to faithful Christians. So, no doubt some were getting on their high horse and condemning the meat-eaters as the next best thing to idol worshippers, while others were getting on an equally high horse to dismiss the abstainers as weak-minded buffoons who could not understand that the pagan gods had no real existence and therefore meat from animals offered in sacrifice was no different from any other meat on the butcher’s counter. A similar problem had emerged for Paul in Corinth.
How does Paul tackle it? What he has to say here is pretty much the same as what Jesus says in the Gospels: “Do not judge one another”. In one of his books, the writer Brian McLaren sums up Paul’s position in these words: “On these controversial matters, [Paul] says, everyone should do two things: first, be convinced in their own mind, and, second, keep their convictions to themselves. What they do regarding disputable matters is important, because it expresses their devotion to the Lord. But what they do is not relevant to what others do as their expression of devotion to the Lord.” Paul’s own words are quite clear: “each of us will be accountable to God” for the way in which we live as members of his people. That being the case, we have no business passing judgment on our fellow-Christians or (even worse) despising them.
Religion that delights in passing judgement, in condemning, in despising is bad religion. Religion that delights in “demanding its due” is bad religion. Jesus, in today’s Gospel, picks up that theme of accountability, that “each of us will be accountable to God”, and reminds us that that accountability affects the way in which we live with one another. We, who have experienced the reality of God’s forgiveness, who know that despite our repeated failures we are still loved and accepted by our heavenly Father – we cannot withhold that forgiveness from one another. “How often should I forgive?” “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Or seventy times seven, depending on how you interpret St Matthew’s Greek. Either way you will have lost count long before you come to the 78th offence, let alone the 491st.
Life is too short to bear grudges. Relationships are too important to bear grudges. The unity of Christ’s body is too important – although the left hand still merrily hammers nails into the right hand without realising what it is doing. Bad religion, self-righteousness, isn’t “mainly harmless”. Like the failure to forgive, it can be a killer. Remember what happened in Pakistan a couple of weeks ago – or in north-east India earlier in the summer.
Like Paul, we know that “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” From Jesus we learn the power and the depth of God’s forgiveness. In his strength, we are called to commit ourselves again to the way of peace and reconciliation and to turn our backs on the temptation to judge or despise. As St Paul reminds us, “we will all stand before the judgement seat of God. For it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.’ So then, each of us will be accountable to God.”
Trinity 14 (10.9.2023)
If someone were to ask you to explain in one sentence how to live as a Christian, you could do a lot worse than sharing these words from today’s first reading: “Owe no one anything except to love one another.” That’s it. That’s all there is to it. “The one who loves another has fulfilled the law”. Pleasing God, fulfilling God’s law, isn’t about ticking the right boxes. It’s about our basic attitudes: to God; to other people; to ourselves. It’s about wanting their good (and our own). So we are called to put love at the centre of everything we do. That’s love for family, for friends, for neighbours. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” Do good to others, and not harm. Be a blessing to others, in the way you treat them. “Love your neighbour as yourself.” And remember that “your neighbour” is whoever God sends your way. God loves them. So must we.
God is an equal opportunities God. God doesn’t do “them and us.” For God, everyone is “us”. Did you notice how much time and trouble Jesus tells people to take when there are differences within the congregation, or when one member causes hurt to another? Those who follow his way have to do the same. Forgiveness is always there. Mercy is always there. That is God’s bottom line, and it has to be ours. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.”
That’s what Jesus showed us. He shared our life, and our dying. He shared our human existence from the womb to the tomb, so that we might share his life eternally. He shares that life with us today in the bread and wine of our Communion and he promises that, however few in number his friends may be, “Where two or three are gathered in [his] name, [he is] there among them”.
There’s a story about a monastery that had fallen on hard times. Once it had been full of monks, working, studying, praying. Many pilgrims came to pray there. Local people worshipped there each day and others came from far away to attend the abbey’s beautiful Easter and Christmas services. But that was long ago. No one had joined the community for years. There were half a dozen grey heads left. No more pilgrims came. And the great church was empty, even for the major feasts. The abbot was losing hope.
Now, the abbot’s oldest friend was a rabbi, a scholar who studied the Law alone in a hut in the woods. Often the abbot would visit him, to share a simple meal¸ or to talk, or to share silence. In this crisis, the abbot made the journey to see his old friend. He shared his fears about the shrinking of the community, their poverty, the danger that the monastery would close. Then the two friends sat in silence for a long time. Finally, the rabbi looked at the abbot, and said, “Always remember, the Messiah is among you.” Then he was silent. And after sharing in the silence for a time, the abbot took leave of his friend and returned to the monastery.
When he arrived back the monks asked him, “What did the rabbi say?” The abbot replied “He said, ‘The Messiah is among you.’” The monks looked at one another, wondering what the rabbi had meant. “The Messiah is among us? Where? How? Who?” That made them think!
Each of them thought about their fellow-monks, totting up their faults – and their gifts. One brother was a bit dim… but he always had a smile on his face, and he could raise the other monks’ spirits when life was hard. Might it be him?… Another brother was the grumpiest monk in the community, always the first to complain… but also the first to turn up when a difficult job needed doing, and stay until it was finished. Could it be him…?
As the monks pondered what the rabbi meant, they began to treat one another with more respect, more reverence. And people noticed. They began to come back for the great festivals. Pilgrims began to visit the shrine again. Then a young man came and asked to become a member of the community. And more followed him. Within a few years there were younger monks in the monastery, working, studying, praying. It was a place of hope and love and joy once again – the Messiah was among them. And it showed.
In the gifts of each member of the community, in their life of study and work and prayer, in the bread and wine of the Communion, and in the mutual love which neighbours and visitors could see, the Messiah was among them. As he is among us, gathered in his name.
Trinity 13 (3.9.2023)
Last week’s gospel, if you remember, finished on an incredible high! At least for Peter. We heard last week how Peter recognised Jesus as the Messiah. Peter was the one who saw clearly who Jesus is; he got the right answer! And we heard last week how Jesus rewarded Peter very richly. ‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church’, Jesus said to him. Peter was given a position of great honour and also great responsibility. Peter the rock. Peter taking on from Christ, the rock of our salvation, the very tasks of the kingdom of heaven.
And yet today, in the passage which is the direct continuation from last week’s gospel, Peter is another sort of rock all together—Peter is the stumbling block, the rock you can trip over, the rock that can cause to stumble and fall.
Today in our reading, Peter is no longer the solid and dependable rock on which a whole church can be built. Rather, today Peter is the rock that hinders, which trips up. Peter is the rock who scandalizes Jesus, and who receives his firm rebuke. From that incredible high of being named the rock on which the church will be built, Peter falls today in abject failure.
This stark picture of Peter, the first disciple called by Jesus, shows us just what a difficult and tricky business it is to follow Jesus. Of course, Peter doesen’t want to hear that Jesus is going to suffer and die—die in humiliation on a cross. Of course, Peter doesn’t want to hear that the reward for following Jesus isn’t status, honour, and glory—but rather suffering, persecution and even death. Which one of us would not have reacted the way that Peter did? ‘God forbid it, Lord,’ Peter cries to Jesus.
Peter’s desire to hold on to Jesus, to have Jesus stay with them in person, to continue to travel around with Jesus to the adoration of the crowds as they teach and heal and bring light and hope and joy to the people becomes a stumbling block.
Because what Peter is trying to do, is to drag Jesus off the path that he must indeed tread. Jesus: his teaching, his ministry, his healing, his love—comes to full fruition only in the cross.
Jesus’s stern rebuke to Peter: ‘Get away from me, you Satan’ alerts us to how dangerous Jesus considers Peter to be. The name Satan literally means ‘tempter’ or ‘one who tests’, and by calling Peter Satan, Jesus reveals just how tempting Peter’s suggestion to abandon the cross is.
As Jesus cries out to Peter, perhaps he is thinking back to his 40 days in the wilderness when Satan tempted him with worldly rewards and the path of easy popularity.
Jesus accuses Peter—you think as human beings think, not as God thinks. And of course, as human beings it is not at all surprising that we too think in a human way. Our natural inclination is to see the world from our own perspective and to want things that serve our needs and work to our advantage.
Jesus’s harsh words to Peter (which ring true for us and for all would-be disciples) warn against the selfish and self-serving ways of the world. Jesus warns against the kind of ‘me first’ attitude which is so very common in our own day.
‘Whoever wants to save his life will lose it’, Jesus says. If we focus our energies on ourselves—on what I want, what I need, what serves me, that very selfishness and egotism will indeed be the death of my soul and my very life. Selfishness, me first, egotism take us to a life which has no purpose and no meaning.
The catholic monk Ermes Ronchi suggests that in this passage, when Jesus says, ‘ take up your cross and follow me’, we substitute the word ‘love’ for the word ‘cross’. Because, after all, the cross is the ultimate sign of God’s love for us. So, in modern terms, Jesus say: if any want to be my followers, let them give up selfishness and egotism, and let them take up love and follow me.
For Jesus, taking up the cross was an act of love—the sign that God loves us more than we can desire or deserve.
The tricky business of following Jesus then is about doing what ‘love’ requires us. Taking up the cross is like putting on glasses which allow us to see others with the loving eyes of God. Taking up the cross means turning our focus away from our own needs and desires, our own comfort and material wellbeing and looking out for the well being of others.
As a bit of homework for this week, some help in putting all of this into practice, I urge you to take home your pewsheet. Read again, each day, those words of advice that St Paul offered to the Christian community in Rome. In those words he reminds us of what it means to ‘take up our cross and follow Jesus’, that is, ‘to take up love.’
Trinity 12 (27.8.2023)
As we have been reminded during recent days, to answer the question Jesus asked in this morning’s Gospel with the same words as Simon Peter can be dangerous, and sometimes very dangerous indeed. Pakistani Christians in Jaranwala have been discovering that the hard way. Houses have been torched, churches have been fire-bombed, people have been beaten up or driven from their homes by organised gangs, because they, like Peter, believe that Jesus of Nazareth is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
It was a dangerous statement in the mouth of Peter, too. People knew what a Messiah was and what he was expected to do. He was the man anointed by God to drive the Roman armies occupying Judaea into the sea and to re-establish the kingdom that David had ruled 900 years earlier. The occupying Romans also knew that, and anyone who claimed to be the Messiah was likely to meet an unpleasant, and probably very public, death. No wonder Jesus “sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone”.
Now, in Mark’s Gospel and in Luke’s that is Jesus’ immediate response to Peter and the end of the story – except for a detailed explanation by Jesus of what is inevitably going to happen (but you’ll have to wait for Vickie Sims’ visit next Sunday to hear about that). Matthew, though, records that Jesus blesses Peter for his moment of insight; “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” And he goes on to affirm Peter’s status as the rock on which “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it”. Those are words whose differing interpretations have caused huge tensions between Catholics and other Christians during the past five centuries!
That, I think, is where it’s helpful to turn to St Paul and to his letter to the Christians of Rome, another city where deadly accusations of blasphemy were being levelled against them.
By this stage in his letter to Rome, Paul has dealt with the questions which were concerning him about the meaning of Jesus, and particularly questions about what his coming meant for the relationship between those Jews who had not acknowledged Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” and those, both Jews and Gentiles, who had. Paul is not concerned about the status of individuals, nor about pecking orders, as he sets out for the believers in Rome his understanding of Church, of what it means for them to be the people who acknowledge Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God”.
Paul writes in his letter about worship – not just an hour in church on Sunday, but a life lived as what he calls “a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God”. He talks about transformation, a transformation of Christians’ ways of thinking, so that their focus is on discerning God’s will, not on personal advancement, or wealth, or status, as the highest good. He says quite a bit about the need to avoid status-seeking. He urges his readers, “ not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement.” And he urges them to recognise one another’s gifts, “according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” We are called to recognise that “ we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us”, and to use them, appropriately, to God’s glory, so that each of us becomes as fully as possible, the person that God made us to be, not a clone of some admired pastor or preacher. As a wise priest said to me many years ago, “each one of us is God’s unique experiment in being human”. Each one of us: Peter, Paul, you, me, all are created to use the gifts that God has given us to build up his people as “one body in Christ”, using those “gifts that differ according to the grace given to us” to make known his glory, to reveal his compassion, to support people in any kind of trouble, so that in the end the world may recognise Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Trinity 11 (20.8.2023)
Let’s try a little thought experiment this morning, as we mull over the story we have heard in today’s Gospel. Just for a moment imagine that you are somewhere “in the district of Tyre and Sidon”. And imagine, not that you are walking along with Jesus and the Twelve, but that you are a local, a passer-by who stops to see what will happen when one of your neighbours bursts out of her house and starts shouting after this group from Jewish Galilee who have found their way into your non-Jewish territory – very non-Jewish, judging by Matthew’s description of the woman as a Canaanite, descended from the original, pre-Israelite, inhabitants of the land?
How do you react? Do you understand what she’s saying? Not the words – everyone around Tyre and Sidon spoke Aramaic in their everyday life, same as they did in Galilee. Not the words, but the ideas. Why is she calling this Jewish guy “Son of David”? And what does she want him to do? Does she want him to heal her daughter? So, he must be some kind of Jewish holy man, then. He doesn’t look terribly pleased, though he isn’t saying anything. Neither do the people with him – and they’re saying a lot. It sounds as if they’re telling him to send her away.
But he doesn’t. He does says something, and the words are pretty decisive: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But who’s he talking to? Her – or himself? And in what tone of voice is he saying them? Is it stern and dismissive? Or is it more questioning, even tentative, someone reminding himself what his priorities are supposed to be?
Wait a minute, she’s managed to wriggle her way through the bodyguard, those dozen men and maybe a few women (it’s hard to tell at this distance) who are clustered round Jesus. She’s wriggled her way through and she has fallen down at his feet, shouting, almost screaming, ‘Lord, help me.’ She must have a very sick daughter. And Jesus he’s saying something else, about throwing the children’s food to the dogs. That wasn’t very kind, was it?
But it’s fairly typical of folk from Galilee. They always think they’re better than the people across the border. But again, who’s he talking to? Her, or the people around him, or himself? Whoever he’s talking to, she’s onto what he said like a flash. What’s more, she’s turned it back on him – and how! ‘Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Well! How’s Jesus going to take that? Surely he’s going to be very, very angry? Surely he’ll do what the people around him want and send her packing. But he doesn’t. He stands there. He looks at her. Is he angry? Or is he smiling, maybe even laughing? Then he speaks, and he isn’t very angry. He isn’t angry at all. ‘Woman,’ he says, ‘great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter, Matthew tells us, was healed instantly.
Now, as we were looking at that scene from the point of view of one of the locals, did any of you think “I don’t belong here”? Did any of you want to put yourselves in the shoes of one of the disciples? If you did, remember that OK, you’re a Christian, but you’re not Jewish. In terms of first-century Palestine and Syria, all of us are among the outsiders, like the Canaanite woman and her neighbours. In part it’s because of that encounter, because of that woman’s persistence, that we are counted among the children, and not among the dogs. It was her faith in Jesus’ power to heal anyone – not only Jews – that set up, as Jesus acknowledged, her daughter’s healing and enlarged the scope of his mission. It isn’t “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” There are no boundaries any more. As the prophet had realised centuries before this encounter, “the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel,… will gather others to them besides those already gathered.” Not just other Israelites, but also “the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord” in faith as that woman did. That was what made it possible for both her and her daughter to be recognised as beloved children of God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, who gathers us.
Trinity 10 (13.8.2023)
People in small boats getting into trouble are a bit of a hot issue at present, with the drownings in the English Channel yesterday and the 700 who died in the waters off Greece in June. I suspect that it’s an issue that may have stirred up distressing memories in some people here, too. The summer before the pandemic hit, a group preparing for their confirmation got talking about the experiences that some of the candidates had had on their way to Italy, especially during the sea crossing. Some of it was really very frightening – and it wasn’t always the obvious things. Sometimes when people saw rescue boats not far away they were afraid that the rescuers wouldn’t see them. Like the disciples, they panicked. Fr Moses, and another member of the group talked about how they were nearly tipped into the water by people doing silly things like standing up in overloaded inflatables and waving, and if they hadn’t been stopped by someone saying, not so much ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid’ as ‘Take heart, you’ve been seen; do not be afraid – and stop leaping about!’, they might have ended up in the same state as the people in that boat in the English Channel.
So as we listen to that part of Matthew’s account of what happened after Jesus had fed 5,000 men, plus women and children, we are reminded that in a situation when we feel like panicking, when we’re in danger of being overwhelmed by the forces of chaos, forces that we can’t control, the important thing is to listen for the voice of Jesus saying to us, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Trust Jesus to hold us in his loving attention, whatever may be going on in our lives.
And then there’s Peter. ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ When we first start following Jesus we sometimes think we can do anything. Life is wonderful. We know that we are loved, forgiven, accepted. So we want to do something beautiful for God, who loves us so much. Or we think that all our problems are at an end. God will sort us out a job, or a flat, or a boy-friend or girl-friend. We clamber out of the boat, and set off in the direction where we hear God calling us. And that’s fine. In fact it’s rather wonderful, to have the confidence, the trust, to do that.
BUT, when we have a transforming experience of God’s love, when we hear Jesus speaking to us loud and clear, we need to remember that it doesn’t make all the bad things, the difficult things, go away. And they can frighten us, as the strong wind and the choppy waters frightened Peter. We find ourselves, as we shall sing in our offertory hymn a few minutes from now, “toss’d about With many a conflict, many a doubt, Fightings and fears within, without.” And when that happens, as it almost certainly will, there is only one thing to do. We have to keep our gaze firmly focused on Jesus – not so that “the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace”, but so that we can see our path ahead clearly through the chaos in that light, in the awareness of his presence with us. And if we lose sight of him, as Peter did, when he switched his focus to the wind and the waves, then with Peter we cry out “Lord, save me!”
And we can also use that prayer, or variations on it, when the waves we are facing aren’t huge crises, but those little habits, the ways of thinking and doing, that get in the way of following Jesus and into which we find it all too easy to slip. They can sink us, too. When we find ourselves going round in circles, trapped in a mental feedback loop, or wallowing in the memory of a past situation, then what is helpful is to fire off an arrow prayer, like Peter’s “Lord, save me!” Some people recommend the words which open evening prayer: “O God make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me”. I often use a prayer I which I was taught 50 years ago, “Sweet Jesus, be a Jesus to us and save us.” We don’t need to keep repeating it. He will come to our rescue and make himself known as “truly… the Son of God”.
The Transfiguration of Our Lord (6.8.2023)
The near-destruction of this building by the Royal Air Force toward the end of October 1942 was what the military call “collateral damage”, inflicted in the effort to stop the Axis powers from supplying or reinforcing their armies in North Africa after the Allied victory at El Alamein. That battle was described by the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, in these words: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
We might use the same words to describe the strange episode on the holy mountain which was described in our two readings this morning. It is far from being the end of the story, or even the beginning of the end. In Luke’s Gospel it comes just over a third of the way in. There are another fourteen chapters to follow before we reach Jesus’ crucifixion, and fifteen before Luke ‘s account of the resurrection. “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
The Transfiguration of Our Lord, that moment in which “the Majestic Glory” shines in all its radiance through Jesus’ human body, comes almost at the end of his ministry in Galilee. From here on, after he comes down from the mountain, Jesus, followed by the Twelve, is heading south, his face set firmly toward Jerusalem. This pause before setting out on that journey is, if you like, a foretaste of the light and glory of Easter as the clouds begin to close in around the little group from Galilee.
And it’s more than that. The transfiguration is about who Jesus is. The glory of God blazes from his face and shines, dazzlingly, through his clothes. Moses and Elijah , two of the great heroes of Israel’s past, men who had gone up a mountain in search of God – come from heaven to this mountain in order to meet Jesus and to talk with him about his “departure”, his death in other words, “which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem”.
Peter, waking up in the middle of all this, wants to mark such a special encounter by building “three dwellings”, three versions of the “tent of meeting” where Moses had talked with God during that other “departure”, the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt. But Peter’s burblings are cut off by the coming of a cloud, “a deep and dazzling darkness” as a poet once described it, in which God’s presence is made known in the same way as it had been in that “tent of meeting” where God had met with Moses. Here, though, there is no giving of the Law, not even ten commandments. Here the divine voice delivers a single message: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
A hundred years later, somebody writing in the name of Simon Peter used the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration as a way of reminding their readers that truth matters, summoning them back from the following of false and dangerous teaching or, as they put it, “cleverly devised myths”, which blur the distinction between reality and fantasy – or downright lies. After a week in which Donald Trump has been formally charged for his part in stirring up an attempted coup d’état in the USA three years ago, we too may need to be reminded of that. Nor is it only in the realm of politics that we need to be wary of those “cleverly devised myths”. I met someone recently who expressed deep concern about the uncontrolled rise of artificial intelligence and its potential for spreading untruth. Advertisers, social media influencers, even people purporting to be Christian teachers, also have a vested interest in drawing us away from the truth of God as God is revealed in Jesus. The answer to them, for us as for whoever wrote the Second Letter of Peter, is “to be attentive to [the Gospel message] as to a lamp shining in a dark place,” praying that Christ the morning star will rise to illuminate our hearts and minds.
Trinity 8 (30.7.2023)
Today’s readings are, in their very different ways, answers to the question which the London taxi-driver asked the famous philosopher: “What’s it all about?” Unlike the famous philosopher, who couldn’t answer the question, both Paul and Jesus offer us answers. Paul gives us the answer to which he has been working up since the opening greeting of his letter to the Christian communities of Rome. Jesus doesn’t produce “an answer”, as such. Instead he positively peppers the disciples with parables about the kingdom of heaven, giving them vivid images they can catch hold of and think about, offering hints and ideas rather than a detailed description. And nothing that is meant to be taken literally.
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, a measure of yeast. It’s like treasure, or a beautiful and valuable pearl. It’s like a net full of all kinds of fish. So what are we meant to take from all these vivid images? First of all, I think, that the kingdom of heaven is not something that comes with a great fanfare. The nineteenth-century clergyman Sydney Smith once said about a colleague that his idea of heaven was “eating pâté de foie gras to the sound of trumpets”. The parables of the kingdom could hardly be further removed from that. Jesus describes the kingdom in terms of things that are tiny, or hidden. He describes it as so precious that it’s worth giving up everything else in exchange for it. “He sold all that he had” is the punch-line to both the parable of the hidden treasure and the parable of the pearl.
The final parable in the series is very different – and a reminder that the kingdom of God is not a gathering of the manifestly pure and holy. No. “The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.” And it’s not the job of the fish to decide which kinds are to be collected in the fishermen’s creel and which kinds are to be thrown back. That’s the task of the fishermen, the angels at the end of the age.
In the mean time, what do we do? St Paul offers some guidance in the extract from his letter to the Christians in Rome. First of all, as another Paul, Paul Tillich, would say nineteen centuries later, “Accept that you are accepted.” Don’t give up on God, because God certainly hasn’t given up on you. Listen again to some of St Paul’s bullet points from the passage we heard a few minutes ago:
- “The Spirit helps us in our weakness.” When our prayer is rubbish, when life isn’t going to plan, the Spirit takes over – if we let her.
- “The Spirit intercedes for the saints” – in other words, the members of the community.
- “All things work together for good for those who love God.” That’s not quite “God sees and provides”, but it comes pretty close.
- “If God is for us, who is against us?” The quick answer is “Nobody”. As Paul writes, “It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.” Jesus is our judge, but his judgement is the judgement of love.
- “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” The quick answer, again, is “Nothing”, neither on this earth nor beyond it. Nothing in the world as it is or in the world as it one day will be. No force of nature or of supernature.
The whole of this passage spells out that God is on our side. And that, in the end, is the answer to the taxi-driver’s question. That is the heart of the Christian Gospel: “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And to him, with the Father and the Holy Spirit…
St Mary Magdalen (23.7.2023 – Transferred from 22.7.)
In the church of the monastery at Vadstena, on the shores of Lake Vättern in southern Sweden, there are two carvings of Birgitta Birgersdotter, the remarkable woman who persuaded King Magnus of Sweden to donate his lakeside palace as the home of the new religious order for women and men which she was founding.
One of those carvings, done in wood by the German sculptor Johannes Junge nearly 600 years ago, shows her holding a book. This is Birgitta as spiritual teacher, the adviser of kings and bishops, even of popes.
The other, in stone which still bears most of its original paintwork, shows the mystic Birgitta, a visionary with her eyes fixed on heaven. This is the Birgitta who referred to herself as “the bride of Christ” and whose spiritual life through seven decades, from early childhood until her death 650 years ago today, was focused on the Lord’s passion and on understanding what it means for struggling human beings. At the age of ten she had received a vision of Jesus hanging on the cross and when she asked him who had mistreated him so badly he replied “Those who despise me and spurn my love for them.”
In some ways Birgitta is a soul-sister to the saint we are celebrating today. Mary of Magdala may not have been the adviser of rulers and senior churchmen nor, despite Dan Brown’s fantasies, the bride of Christ, but she was, as we have heard in today’s gospel, the woman to whom the risen Christ first made himself known after his resurrection and who received from him a message for the disciples. She was also a member of that faithful group of women who had followed Jesus from Galilee, the half-dozen or so who had stood at a distance at the place of execution, watching until the end, when the men had run away, and who had then followed the sad little procession to his makeshift tomb, experiencing the reality which was to shape many of Birgitta’s visions thirteen centuries later.
For both women, their experience was rooted in a deep love, like the love described by the Shulammite bride in our reading from the Song of Songs. In Mary Magdalen’s case, that love had grown out of her experience of healing. St Luke tells us that Jesus had driven seven demons out of her – an indication, perhaps, of serious mental illness. In Birgitta’s case it arose from her childhood experience of the God who loved her – and all humankind – to the point of enduring torture and a cruel death at the hands of “those who despise [him] and spurn [his] love for them.” And yet both Mary and Birgitta had to come face to face with the realisation that “[the one] whom my soul loves” is infinitely greater than our capacity for loving. When she found her lover the Shulammite held him, and would not let him go until [she] “brought him into my mother’s house, and into the chamber of her that conceived me.” When Mary tries to cling to Jesus, she is gently rebuked. ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.’
We cannot hang on to God like a possessive lover. We cannot control God, who is far beyond the grasp of our human understanding. That is central to Birgitta’s teaching. It is central to Mary’s experience. Her relationship to the risen Christ cannot be the same as her relationship to the earthly Jesus. That is clear from the way she fails to recognise him. At the same time, the risen Christ recognises Mary’s unique role as the first witness of the resurrection as he entrusts her with the task of sharing her testimony with the male disciples: ‘Go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’ She is to be the first to proclaim the good news of the resurrection, to become “the apostle to the apostles” as the Eastern Church calls her. And that message, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”, opens to all people – opens to us – the possibility of knowing, as Birgitta did, that we are loved by an infinitely loving God, Christ’s Father, and, gloriously and undeservedly, our Father too.
Trinity 4 (2.7.2023)
Both today’s readings are, to some extent, about the rewards for following Jesus – except “reward” isn’t quite the right word. “Reward” suggests that we have done something to deserve what we are given. Paul, writing to the Christian communities in Rome, makes it clear that what we are given is, quite simply, a gift – and what matters is how we receive that gift. And on that, his message is clear: “No longer present your members [your limbs, in other words] to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.”
The key phrase there is “present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life.” It reminds us that the initiative is always God’s. That’s what “grace” is: a free gift; something we don’t, and indeed can’t, deserve; something to celebrate with joy. That’s why this week-end, I am celebrating the gift of forty years as a presbyter in the Church of England. Churchy people sometimes talk about the “grace of ordination”, which means, basically, the gift of being set apart for a particular task among, or on behalf of, God’s people. Set free to serve God – to be God’s slave, as Paul puts it, one of those “slaves to righteousness for sanctification” whom he commends to the Christians of Rome as models to follow.
And with that gift comes the gift of wonder at God’s patient love and mercy. The priest with whom I spent a month on placement when I was training for ordination summed me up as “not quite ready for the kingdom of heaven.” I think that’s probably still true. But God is still there, nudging me onward. God never gives up on any of us. Even when we make a complete dog’s breakfast of things, even when we fall to new depths in our failure to be the people God called us to be, we discover that, however far we may have fallen, God’s arms are there beneath us to catch us and to bear us up, to set us on our feet again. It’s more, infinitely more, than we deserve.
But, as I have discovered over the past forty years, God is like that. The gifts keep coming, though sometimes the packaging can be difficult to unwrap. Many years ago, when I was newly in charge of a church and having a fairly tough time, a wise bishop told me, “Look at the things that you are finding really frustrating. That is where you are sitting on a gold-mine.” That’s good advice, not just for clergy but for everyone. Sometimes it means sitting still and waiting to see what changes. Sometimes it means probing and poking, more or less gently. Sometimes it means simply waiting, and watching, and weeping.
Now, the greatest gift has been the people, family and friends, the colleagues from many Christian traditions with whom I’ve worked in Britain, in Italy, in many other parts of Europe from Scandinavia to the Eastern Mediterranean, and the people, black, white, Asian, to whom I have ministered over the past four decades – and often discovered that they were ministering to me. I very soon learned never to despise “little old ladies”. Very often they had seen it all, done it all, and were possessed of a great wisdom which they weren’t frightened to share, ever so gently, with a bouncy curate – or with his senior colleagues, for that matter. They were happy to welcome me in the name of Jesus, and to offer me – well, usually a cup of tea, rather than a cup of cold water – in the name of a disciple, someone who was also learning, as they had learned, to follow Jesus.
So the reward, the gift, isn’t “pie in the sky when you die”. The reward is here and now in those moments when something does change, when a fragmenting or fractious relationship “comes right”, when we become aware that, in the words of a worship song popular 20 years ago, “mercy, it falls like the sweet spring rain”, when God’s love is revealed through one of those “cracks in everything” which, as Leonard Cohen recognised, are “how the light gets in”. Each of them is given as a reminder that, in St Paul’s words: “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And that life begins now!
Birth of St John the Baptist (25.6.2023 transferred from 24.6)
What is going on? I’m not talking about the extraordinary events in Russia during the past forty-eight hours. I’m not even talking about the tragedies that have been unfolding off Greece and in the North Atlantic during the past ten days. I’m talking about the family celebration described by St Luke in this morning’s gospel. It’s a strange story to start with. Elizabeth, long past the age for child-bearing, suddenly becomes pregnant. Her husband, Zechariah, equally aged, is literally dumbstruck at the news – and remains so through the nine months of his wife’s dolce attesa.
We pick up the story this morning nine months on, at the point when “the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son.” Family and friends are, as we say, “over the moon”. The neighbours are delighted. They get together on the eighth day to circumcise the child and, no doubt, to have a party. There’s only one problem. What will the child be called? “Zechariah after his father” seems a pretty obvious choice in a patriarchal society, but Elizabeth isn’t having any of it. She insists, for reasons that we know but the family members, friends and neighbours don’t, that “he is to be called John.’ It’s a fairly common name in first-century Palestine – but not, apparently, in Zechariah and Elizabeth’s family. So they ask dad for a ruling. He asks for the first-century equivalent of a ball-point and a yellow sticky and writes, to the amazement of all, ‘His name is John.’ Endorsing what his wife says and not overruling her as they probably expected. And immediately he recovers the use of his voice, “and he began to speak, praising God.”
What is going on? The story spreads not only all round the village, but right across the region – an area about the size of this city, and about as hilly! And over and over the people who hear the story ask the same question ‘What then will this child become?’ Well, the answer to that question can be found in our first reading. Matthew, Mark and Luke all apply to the adult John the prophet’s description of “A voice crying out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.”
It can also be found in our first hymn. When we sang those words, “Make way, make way, for Christ the King in splendour arrives,” we were echoing the adult John’s message two thousand years ago, calling people to prepare, to repent, to change the way they look at the world – and at themselves. Today’s birthday celebration for John the Baptist is a reminder to us to be ready to receive Christ, to “fling wide the gates and welcome him into [our] lives” – and it has to be our lives first, because we can’t ask others to do what we haven’t done ourselves. And we have to do it daily. We can’t rest on the memory that I invited Jesus into my life, or that I made promises to God at my baptism or confirmation, long ago. Those promises, and that invitation, have to be renewed, in the same way that some of us have to go regularly to the questura in order to renew our permesso di lavoro or permesso di soggiorno. I often use the opening lines of an old hymn as a kind of “act of renewal” at the beginning of the day. They go like this:
“At thy feet, O Christ, we lay Thine own gift of this new day;
Doubt of what it holds in store Makes us crave thine aid the more;
Lest it prove a time of loss, Mark it, Saviour, with thy Cross.”
Today, as we remember John the Baptist’s birth, we are reminded that we are six months short of another child’s birth, and that John is that child’s forerunner. John will grow up to bring a blunt warning of God’s coming judgement, but the one who follows him, the one to whom he points, is the living embodiment of God’s mercy, everlasting and infinite. Jesus our Lord bears all the sins and sorrows of the world, including the wars, the shipwrecks, the floods and famine which we lament, as well as our personal failures and disappointments. In the name of God his Father, he offers hope and healing to a broken and distracted world.
Trinity Sunday (4.6.2023)
In 19th-century France there was a man who wrote books about religion under the name of Eliphas Lévi. His real name was Alphonse Louis Constant and he was what was known in those days as a “spoiled priest”. He had abandoned Christian ministry to become a magician and a purveyor of “esoteric” knowledge. So the books that he wrote are not books that I would recommend. However, people whose stock-in-trade is fantasy can still sometimes tell the truth. And there is one sentence for which Eliphas Lévi is rightly remembered. In one of his books he wrote “Un dieu défini est un dieu fini.” That is probably best translated into English as , “A god who is defined is a god who is finished.”
And that’s right. If we think we can define God, if we think we have God tied down, if we think we can predict what God will do, or say, in any given situation, we are not talking about God, but about an idol of our own imagining, our own creation: not the true and living God, but a god who is indeed “finished”.
But, hang on a moment! Isn’t Trinity Sunday the day when Christians sit down and explain how their God can be one God, a belief shared with Jews and Muslims, and at the same time known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Well, yes and no. We can’t explain or define God. Quite simply God cannot be defined because God is infinite and therefore indefinable by finite minds like ours. The Psalmist this morning puts human attempts to define God into perspective when he asks “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have ordained, What are mortals, that you should be mindful of them; mere human beings, that you should seek them out?” And remember that when the Psalmist wrote those words next to nothing was known of the immensity and the age and the complexity of the universe.
What we are doing today is not explaining but celebrating God. We are recognising that God has created a universe that is immense, astounding, and ancient – and by ancient, I mean nearly fourteen billion years old (give or take the odd 200 million). We are also recognising, with the Psalmist, that God is mindful of mortals and seeks out “mere human beings”. Christians, indeed, go further. We affirm not only that God seeks out “mere human beings”. We also affirm that at a particular point in history, in an obscure and troublesome provincial backwater of a military dictatorship, God has entered his own creation as one of those “mere human beings” and shared their whole existence, from birth to death. Furthermore, we affirm that this “mere human being” who was God living among us, has provided a channel through which God’s “Spirit”, the divine breath that gives life to every creature, breathes in us and through us and not only recreates all that there is but also renews in us the image of God’s glory.
What’s more, we don’t just affirm this. We don’t just take it on trust. We experience it. That has been the case from the very earliest communities of Christians right down to our own day. Our reading from St Paul’s second letter to the Christians of Corinth, written around twenty-five years after the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and the Gospel according to Matthew, written, perhaps, fifteen years after that, both recognise this three-way engagement with God. In Paul’s case, it comes as gift (or grace), as love and as communion or sharing – and the gift and the sharing are both spin-offs from the love, which is central. In Matthew’s case, the recognition of God as Father, Son and Spirit is part of the Easter proclamation. When Christians proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, when they baptise those who have come to faith in Jesus, crucified and risen, they do it not just in the name of Jesus but in the threefold name of the God who is made known, but never defined, in Jesus’ life and death and resurrection.
We have heard, and seen, a great deal about water during the past week or so. We’ve seen footage of the rainwater running off the parched land and bursting the banks of every river in Emilia-Romagna and other regions of northern Italy beyond the mountains. My friend John in the Eastern Congo has been sending me images and clips of the damage that has been done there and totting up the lives that have been lost. More than 400 dead, at the last count, and more than 4,000 missing: landslides and mudslides carrying away houses, sometimes whole villages – and the crops on which the people depend. The situation in this country is little better from that point of view. Crops have been lost here as the water poured out across the fields. Water can be horribly destructive.
But water also gives life. Water is essential for life. People can live without food for two months, and sometimes more. They die in about a week if they have no fluids – which for most people means water. So when Jesus spoke, in today’s Gospel passage, about “living water” he was tapping into a powerful image, speaking to people who knew what it meant to go thirsty when the rains failed and the wadis and the wells dried up, people more used to losing their crops to drought than to flood-water. In those words Jesus is promising his hearers, now as well as then, a new quality of life. Jesus is promising them what, earlier in John’s Gospel, he had promised the Samaritan woman at the well and the crowd beside the lake.
What he is promising them is the gift of the Spirit: not, as some Christians seem to think, as a reward for being super-holy but as pure gift for those who come to him in simple trust. ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.’ And then let them become channels for that same gift to other people. ‘As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”’
That’s exactly what happens in that passage from the Acts of the Apostles which was our first reading. Luke uses the imagery of fire, rather than water, when he tells us that “divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them,” but he then returns to the imagery of “being filled”, which goes better with liquid, whether it’s the “living water” which Jesus promised in our Gospel, or the “new wine” imagined by those in the crowd who sneered. It’s through being filled with the Holy Spirit that the eleven and the other disciples are able to communicate with that amazingly diverse gathering of pilgrims from every region of the Eastern Mediterranean – and beyond that into what Europeans call the Middle East, modern-day Turkey, Iraq and Iran. It’s through being filled with the Spirit that Peter and the others can make themselves understood when they are “speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
Now, notice that this isn’t “speaking in tongues” as the Christians of Corinth understood it. This isn’t words in ecstatic speech which only those with the gift of interpretation can understand. This is people from Galilee, a backwater within a backwater in the eyes of those who came from the great cities of the Eastern Mediterranean – people from Galilee communicating, clearly and powerfully, with the pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem from those very cities, and beyond. This is the Holy Spirit acting, in Charles Wesley’s powerful words, as the “true recorder of [Christ’s] passion” and as the “remembrancer divine”, opening hearts and minds to the meaning of God’s saving work, the work accomplished in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
So, when we pray to be filled with the Holy Spirit, we are not praying for a gift that we can hug tight to ourselves. We are praying for a gift which can flow out of us for the sake of others, as we share with them a wisdom and a compassion greater than our own, and bring them into the ceaseless flow of God’s love, so that they too can be filled with Christ’s living water.
Easter 7 (21.5.2023)
Those of us who were in church on Thursday spent some time thinking about St Luke’s skill at telling the story of Jesus in a way that conveys its deeper meaning for those who have ears to hear. The closing verses of his Gospel and the opening chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, part of which we heard a few minutes ago, provide an outstanding example of this. Luke’s account of how Jesus returned to the Father is the most tremendous acted parable. It gives expression to a key request in that long prayer from St John’s Gospel, sometimes called “the high-priestly prayer”, which Jesus offered to the Father on the night of his arrest, the prayer whose opening we heard just now.
The key request is this: “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.” It echoes words from the very beginning of the prayer: “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you.” It echoes those words, but there’s a shift in their meaning. In asking the Father, “Glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you,” Jesus looks forward to his coming suffering and death. “The hour has come”, the hour for which he has been waiting since the first sign which he did at that wedding in Cana of Galilee so many months ago, the hour that his opponents have tried to bring forward as they have plotted how to seize him and put him to death. This time, though, Jesus is looking beyond his death. When he asks the Father, “Glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed,” he is looking ahead to his return to God, about which John has written earlier in his account of the Last Supper.
That return to God draws together so many threads. It affirms the unity of Jesus with the Father. It affirms the authority of Jesus, “authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.” It affirms his role as the source of eternal life. “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” St Luke touches on the same points as he tells how Jesus parted from his disciples. Jesus is “lifted up”. The next visions of Jesus which Luke records – Stephen’s vision as he lay dying, Saul’s vision on the road to Damascus – those visions will be visions of Jesus glorified, at the right hand of the Father, enveloped in the blazing, blinding light of heaven. Jesus commissions the disciples to bear witness. Luke says elsewhere that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.”
And in the midst of the glory, in the midst of the affirmation of authority, in the stream of eternal life that flows from the Father through the Son – there is our humanity. The risen, ascended Christ is still, as the men in white robes remind the disciples, “This Jesus”. “This Jesus”, whose body after his resurrection continues to bear the marks of torture and crucifixion and bears those marks into the heart of the Godhead. That was hard for some who responded to the witness of the disciples to accept; so hard that they performed all kinds of mental contortions and gymnastics to prove that it couldn’t have been so. The God of the philosophers could not suffer and die. The God of the philosophers was – still is – remote from this world, unmoved and unmoving. That is not the God revealed in the incarnate Jesus, the God who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
So as we wait to celebrate God’s gift of the Spirit, the Spirit who has given life to this community for more than 200 years, we come together, like the Eleven, and the women, and Jesus’ mother and brothers, to devote ourselves to prayer, to share in the presence of Jesus, risen, ascended, present in bread and wine, and to recognise his glory in one another as we ponder his words to the Father: “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.”
Ascension Day (18.5.2023)
Typical Luke! Typical tidy-minded, physical, setter-down of an orderly account of “the events that have been fulfilled among us”! Where Mark (authentic Mark, that is) leaves us hanging in mid-air with the women running terrified from the empty tomb, and where Matthew and John offer no time-table and no clear distinction between resurrection and ascension, Luke offers us a six-week programme of appearances which can, with some ingenuity, be checked against Paul’s list in his first letter to the church in Corinth and a distinct “cut-off” date. From the evening of Easter Day fast-forward forty days, and we arrive here – and at a clean break. Yesterday Jesus was teaching the Eleven about the kingdom of God, opening their minds to understand the Scriptures. Today he is gone, carried up into heaven under cover of a cloud.
For a generation brought up on “Star Trek”, that can be quite difficult. It’s all a bit “Beam me up, Scottie!”, don’t you think? The Swiss writer Erich von Däniken made a very good living from books which exploit that particular set of resonances. “Was God an Astronaut?” It’s an awful warning about the weird things that can happen when we take the words of Scripture at face value but fail to heed their deeper meaning.
That’s particularly true when we tackle Luke, who is, in his way, as subtle and careful a pattern-maker as St John. Somebody once said that Luke uses the storyline of his Gospel as a packhorse to carry his theology. And in today’s two readings, from the end of the Gospel and from the beginning of Acts, we watch him working out the transition from the life of Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen, to the life of Jesus revealed as Lord of all, and living no longer in the flesh but, as one ancient Christian liturgy puts it, “in the Holy Spirit in the Holy Church”. So that what matters in these two “liminal” passages, setting us down on the threshold of this huge change, is not only the Ascension itself but the action that is going on around it.
Now, to see clearly what that action is, we have to deal with today’s readings in reverse order – which is the proper chronological order – and not get too hung up on the differences of emphasis in their two accounts of what happened six weeks after the resurrection.
To begin with Luke emphasises, first in his account of what happened on the road to Emmaus and then in his summary of the content of Jesus’s teaching during that six-week period between Easter and Ascension, how Jesus opened the disciples’ minds to understand the Scriptures and talked to them about the kingdom of God. Luke also, incidentally, helps us to realise how little the disciples understood, when he reports their question, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ To which Jesus’ reply is the verbal equivalent of an eye-roll emoji. Not quite as blunt as his comments in Mark’s Gospel on the level of the disciples’ understanding, but running him rather closer than Luke normally does.
The second element in this story is the repeated injunction to wait. ‘Stay in the city’. ‘Wait for the promise of the Father.’ ‘Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’ Then you go out to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins.
And the third key element is at the very end of Luke’s description of Jesus’s departure: the intervention of the two men in white. Are they the same two the women met at the tomb? Possibly. What matters for us, is not who they are, but what they have to say. ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?’ The rebuke is understated, but sharp. There is a job to be done. Don’t stand there gawping. Get on and do it. That’s also a message for us, disciples in another time, but with the same threefold task. Wait: receive: bear witness. Wait on God; receive God’s gift; bear witness to the Christ who suffered and died for the world’s forgiveness. Bear witness to his living presence in our life, as individuals and as a community.
Easter 6 (14.5.2023)
‘If you love me’, says Jesus, ‘you will keep my commandments.’
For the time being he leaves those words hanging and goes on to talk about the gift of ‘another Advocate, to be with [the disciples] for ever.” This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world, in its guise as “the way things are”, cannot receive. The world cannot receive the Spirit because it is alienated from God and no longer capable of recognising God’s claim on it. But you, Jesus tells the disciples, ‘You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you,’ part of that indwelling presence of God which Jesus speaks about no longer simply in terms of the mutual indwelling of Jesus and the Father, as he did at the beginning of this last conversation with the disciples. Now Jesus begins to speak about the mutual indwelling of Jesus and those who follow him – including you, dear brothers and sisters, and me. ‘On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.’ God isn’t somewhere “up there” or “out there”. God is “in here”, in you and in me, in all the mess and clutter and confusion and uncertainty.
And Jesus offers us a tool to clear out that clutter, to tidy up that mess, to bring order to the confusion, and clarity in the place of uncertainty. He circles back to those commandments which he mentioned right at the beginning. ‘They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’ But what are those commandments? What do we have to do to get God to love us? John has answers to those questions, partly in the gospel which bears his name, and partly in his three letters. The answer to the second question is simple. Nothing. We can’t get God to love us because God already does and has done since before we were brought into being. Way back, near the beginning of his Gospel, John lays it on the line: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.’ We are already loved. Infinitely and without conditions.
The answer to the first question is also simple. Jesus has already given it at the end of the supper when he said, ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’ And, like all good teachers, he is about to reinforce the message. Those who are in church tomorrow for St Matthias will hear Jesus say, ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’ Then, a few moments later he will repeat, ‘I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.’ Human life is not about wealth or possessions or power or celebrity. It’s not about the number of people who follow you on social media. It’s about love. ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’ Think about that. ‘As I have loved you’. We’re not talking what used to be called “warm fuzzies” here. We’re talking about the love with which ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,’ the love which brought Jesus to the cross. Our part, as followers of Jesus, is to live in that love and to reflect that love.
That is why, from Thursday onward, we shall once again be taking part in the international and ecumenical initiative “Thy Kingdom Come”. At its most basic level, “Thy Kingdom Come” is a call to prayer. Eight years ago, when it first began, the central idea was that everyone taking part would make a list of five people they knew and spend the ten days from Ascension day to Pentecost praying that God’s kingdom would come in the life of those five people, that each of them would come to know Jesus. Eight years down the line it has grown in scope, reflecting the reality that God’s kingdom extends beyond our individual relationship with Jesus, that entering that relationship has consequences, for the way we behave, the way we treat other human beings, the way we treat this planet on which we live. It’s a call to remember that, as Paul reminded the Athenians, “we too are [God’s] offspring.” And we, and they, are called to live in God’s love.
Easter 5 (7.5.2023)
Well, if King Charles thought that by holding his coronation a month before the 70th anniversary of his mother’s he would enjoy better weather than she did in 1953 he will have been sadly disappointed. The weather across the UK was uniformly awful, grey and wet and not terribly warm. Despite that, it was a good day for most people who aren’t dedicated anti-monarchists, including the British community in Genova and their Italian friends. According to La Repubblica and Primocanale there were over 100 people in church yesterday to watch the live-stream of the coronation of Charles III. Mary and Lis offered a more cautious estimate of eighty – but people were dipping in and out for much of the time, so the higher figure might just be correct.
It was a good day for people of faith, too. The readings from Scripture, and Archbishop Justin’s sermon, put the servant kingship of Christ front and centre as a model for earthly monarchs. The coronation rite itself also focused our attention on the servant nature of kingship. Forget the crowning and the enthronement. At the centre of the rite, which was first devised by Archbishop Dunstan for King Edgar’s coronation over a thousand years ago, is the anointing and, as the Gospel reading yesterday reminded us, when Jesus spoke of his own anointing by the Holy Spirit, he quoted words in which the prophet declared that he had been anointed ‘to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ Kingship is about serving, not being served. And not just kingship. Any kind of authority in church or state. If it is to carry out its task rightly it has to reflect the self-giving love which is at the heart of creation.
That truth underlies this morning’s Gospel. It’s important to remember that when Philip asks Jesus, ‘Lord, show us the Father.’, and Jesus replies, ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’, their exchange takes place during the conversation after a meal at which Jesus has taken on himself the role of the humblest servant and washed the feet of his friends. It is a powerful illustration of what God is like.
Sadly, that is not how the world understands it. That’s not how the world understands the nature of power. The world understands power as a way of getting, not giving. The world understands power as violence, like the violence that killed Stephen, as we heard in our first reading. “They dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.” It has been well said that murder is the extreme form of censorship, the ultimate way of silencing any voice which says inconvenient or disturbing things – even when that voice is the voice of the Son of God, who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
The other thing to remember as we ponder the story of Stephen’s martyrdom, is that Stephen was a deacon. He was one of that group of seven who were set apart in the early days after Pentecost to serve the needs of the Greek-speakers in the community, and particularly to make sure that the widows among them were not missed out when the Jerusalem church’s food bank was open – and the deacon’s ministry is the classic example of servant leadership. In the words of one Christian leader from the generation after the apostles, it is the ministry of Christ himself.
So we return to the image of the servant king, who goes to prepare a place in his Father’s house for the poor, the captive, the silenced and the oppressed, and who shows us how to recognise God at work in his world, the God of whom the late Bill Vanstone wrote,
Thou art God; no monarch Thou
Thron’d in easy state to reign;
Thou art God, Whose arms of love
Aching, spent, the world sustain.
May King Charles and Queen Camilla know that love sustaining them in their ministry to their people, in the UK and across the Commonwealth.
Easter 4 (30.4.2023)
When I was first appointed to my previous church back in the 1990s, a young journalist on the local paper asked me what my plans were for the parish in the coming years. I replied that that was a question which ought to be put to the Churchwardens rather than to me. My job in those first months, as I saw it, was not to change everything but to listen and learn, to find out what was going on, to encourage the good, and maybe to rethink and perhaps rejig the less good. I didn’t add that my own experience had taught me that there are few people more dangerous to church life than a vicar who comes into a new parish with “A PLAN”.
Now, if that young man had asked me not what I wanted to do in the parish but what I wanted to see in the parish at the end of, say, five years, I might have pointed him to this morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, which describe the first community of Christians in Jerusalem after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The opening words pretty well sum up what any Christian community is supposed to be about, and the whole passage is worth pondering as we prepare for our annual church meeting later this morning.
The first part is about those new believers. It’s about how they related to one another. “[They] devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Guided by the Holy Spirit, they created a community which was warm at the centre, which was about sharing, about openness to one another and to God, about being close to those who had been close to Jesus – that’s what “the apostles’ teaching” was about; those who had known Jesus sharing what they had learned in his company. Not laying down the law about this, that or the other. I suspect that if one of those first-century Christians found themselves in a congregation today they would be amazed at the amount of energy we spend arguing about things that don’t really matter – and, what is worse, divide the Church over them.
Those early believers focused on what God had done in Jesus; in his life, in his death and in his resurrection. That had an impact on the way they faced the world. They had been given good news, news that had transformed their lives. They didn’t just talk about it. They lived it. In practical ways they built one another up and looked out for one another. They shared concerns. They shared resources. They lived as members of one big extended family, irrespective of background. And people on the outside noticed. And what they noticed made them want to be part of that big extended family. Not just for what they could get out of it, but because it was such an obviously good thing to be part of. Those who were “broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”
So that first community in Jerusalem was not just warm at the centre. It was also fuzzy at the edges. It didn’t keep the warmth in by shutting the doors and windows so that nobody else could enter. It kept the doors open so that people could see what was going on – and come and join in. As Luke says, “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” There was no great programme. No master strategy. No “PLAN”. Just people living authentically in the Spirit of Jesus of Nazareth, joyfully and generously, praising God and serving their neighbours, offering healing and hope where it was needed.
If someone had asked me when I was first appointed to this church what I wanted to see after, say, five years, I think I would have settled for that. And I think we’ve got that – that abundant life about which Jesus spoke in today’s Gospel. We are a church which is warm at the centre and fuzzy at the edges, an extended family made up of people of different races and ages and cultures – but we’re still very much work in progress. We still need the framework of “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,… the breaking of bread and the prayers.” In our Annual Church Meeting let’s renew our commitment to making that a priority.
Easter 3 (23.4.2023)
One of the things that worries me about the Church (with a capital C) is the way in which some Church leaders seem to think that they have got the whole faith thing sorted out. Anyone who listens to what they say, or reads what they write, will be left with the clear impression that God has said all that God is going to say on a particular topic; that God has said it directly to them; and that anyone who disagrees with what God has said to them is a heretic and an outcast and not a faithful Christian. That’s true right across the Church (capital C again). There are Catholics with that mindset, and Evangelicals, and Eastern Orthodox – even Anglicans. They can be found in North America, in Australia, in Russia, in Africa south of the Sahara, and in the UK.
I’ve been thinking about this because there were quite a lot of them in Rwanda last week: more than a thousand of them; Anglicans, on this particular occasion, who came together from fifty-two different countries, mainly, it seems, to tell the Church of England where it is going wrong.
Now, in principle there’s nothing wrong with that. The Church of England isn’t perfect. Neither is the Archbishop of Canterbury. But two things worry me. First: that the criticism, as reported, is mainly couched in terms of “We’re right. You’re wrong. See it our way or we leave.” Second: that it is all very narrowly focused – and relies heavily on the kind of “leadership” that I described earlier, closing down discussion, rather than opening it up.
That seems to me to be very unscriptural, especially when we consider today’s readings. Last week, you may remember, we heard Peter on the day of Pentecost, laying into the crowd in Jerusalem for colluding with the Roman authorities to have Jesus crucified. That was a pretty major failure. It failed to recognise what God was doing in Jesus. It looked at his career, saw that it didn’t match their own expectations and decided to end it “with extreme prejudice”. So Peter casts them off, right? Shoves them into outer darkness and slams the door behind them?
Well, no. Listen to what he says today as he continues addressing the crowd: ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.’ That isn’t “Save time. See it my way.” It’s “Take another look”. It’s also a startling affirmation of the people in that crowd as those who still inherit God’s promise, despite their abysmal failure – and not just the people in that crowd. “All who are far away” get a look-in, too. So does “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” Which, as we shall discover in the remaining two dozen chapters of Acts, does not mean only people of impeccably Jewish ancestry. This promise is open-ended.
Then there’s today’s Gospel. Nothing here is cut-and-dried, either. The stranger who joins Cleopas and his companion on their journey appears out of nowhere. He remains unrecognised even as he is “opening the scriptures to [them]”. It isn’t until they are sitting round the table and he blesses and breaks the bread that their eyes are opened – and immediately he vanishes. Everything is fluid. Nothing is firm – except for the amazing reality that Jesus is risen. Plans for a quiet evening at home go out of the window. Instead Cleopas and his companion turn round and head back to Jerusalem in the gathering dusk, to share their news with the others. And when they get there, they discover that it isn’t news. The eleven and their companions also had a story to tell. “They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’”
That’s the truth to hang on to. The God whom we worship has been well described as a “God of surprises”. If God does not surprise us but reinforces our prejudices, if God approves of the people we find acceptable and hates the people we hate, we have created an idol in our image and are no longer serving the living God, whose Son astounds us with his resurrection and makes himself known to us, as he did to Cleopas and his companion, in the breaking of the bread.
Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Easter 2 (16.4.2023)
Peter doesn’t take any prisoners when he addresses the crowd in Jerusalem. He hammers home the responsibility of his audience for what had happened two months previously. The Romans may have carried out the execution, but they couldn’t have done it without the cooperation of the people of Jerusalem. “You crucified and killed [Jesus] by the hands of those outside the law.” Cue (to Christians’ eternal shame) twenty centuries of Jew-baiting antisemitism.
But wait a minute, there’s another party involved. Jesus was handed over “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” There are deep and aweful, in the proper meaning of the word, forces at work here, as there are in Judas’s betrayal. Scripture is being fulfilled in these apparently random acts of violence and humiliation – and, above all, in this seemingly senseless death. Just how Scripture is being fulfilled Peter explains by reference to the Psalms, and particularly Psalm 16, which we shared just now – albeit in a slightly different translation.
What happened to Jesus is evidence that he is the Messiah, but not the Messiah as a nationalist warrior-king who will match the exploits of King David. This Messiah has greater enemies to conquer than the nations who surround Israel, greater even than the imperial power of Rome. This Messiah has death itself in his sights. “It was impossible” Peter tells the crowds “for him to be held in its power.” He quotes the Psalmist at some length to make his point: “I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover, my flesh will live in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption.” But David did die, as Peter reminds the people of Jerusalem. David did die, and his tomb “is with us to this day”. In fact, modern-day pilgrims to Jerusalem can still visit a site which is claimed to be the tomb of David, although there are serious historical and archaeological reasons to doubt this.
Not that the history or the archaeology matter very much. What matters is the disciples’ experience that “[Jesus] was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.” That is the heart of Peter’s argument. “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.” That is the affirmation on which our faith stands or falls. And, as we heard in the gospel a few minutes ago, for some that affirmation was costly and the experience hard-won. As it still is. Think of Thomas’s demand for evidence. ‘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” is very emphatic – even more so, coming from a man whose total, if often puzzled, loyalty to Jesus is described more than once in John’s gospel and more than once is sorely tested.
Now there’s an important point at stake in Thomas’s hesitation. The song-writer Sydney Carter expressed it very well in one of his “Songs of Faith and Doubt”, one that, unlike “Lord of the Dance” and “One more step”, didn’t make it into the hymn-books. It begins with the words “Your holy hearsay is not evidence”. That’s true in a court of law. It’s true in the spiritual life, too. You can tell me, as I can tell you, what others have said, but it doesn’t carry any weight until it is part of our experience. That is what convinces us. Not argument. Not appeals to authority. What matters is our experience, as a body and as individuals, of the presence of the risen Christ among us, revealing his wounds to us as he did to the disciples both in Thomas’s absence and in his presence. The risen Christ who comes to the disciples here in John’s Gospel, and in Luke’s, shows his wounds, his hands, his feet, his side, his sharing in the sorrows of the world – which is not cancelled by his resurrection nor his ascension. They are a reminder that if we base our faith only on Christ’s glory we will go astray. If we share in his sufferings we will receive his blessing.
Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Easter Day (9.4.2023)
For some people in Genova 9th April is a difficult day on which to celebrate. It was on this day fifty-three years ago that the SS London Valour was caught in a force 8 gale as it waited to enter harbour and battered relentlessly against the outer mole with the loss of twenty lives, including the ship’s captain and his wife. Twenty-five years earlier at Flössenburg in Bavaria the pastor and teacher Dietrich Bonhoeffer and six other members of the anti-Nazi resistance in Germany were executed on the orders of Adolf Hitler. Whatever happened they were not to survive the war. For some people this is a day heavily marked by death.
But then, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminded his battered and disheartened clergy at the height of the Apartheid regime in South Africa, “Nothing could have been deader than Jesus on the cross on that first Good Friday. And the hopes of his disciples had appeared to die with his crucifixion. Nothing could have been deeper than the despair of his followers when they saw their Master hanging on the cross like a common criminal. The darkness that covered the earth for three hours during that Friday symbolised the blackness of their despair.”
Now, as we heard in our Gospel reading, that was not the end of the story. Not in Jerusalem two thousand years ago: not in South Africa during the 1980s and 1990s. Far from it. “After the sabbath”, Matthew tells us “as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb,” the new rock-hewn tomb in which Jesus’ corpse had been hurriedly laid to rest two days before. As they arrived, all sorts of unexpected things happened. St Matthew lists an earthquake, an angelic visitor, the collapse of the guards posted there to stop Jesus’ disciples from trying to steal his body, and the great stone sealing the mouth of the tomb rolling away. That’s when the Maries discover that there is no body. The tomb is empty. As the angel explains, “[Jesus] is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.” Or, in Desmond Tutu’s words, “And then Easter happened. Jesus rose from the dead. The incredible, the unexpected happened. Life triumphed over death, light over darkness, love over hatred, good over evil. That is what Easter means – hope prevails over despair. Jesus reigns as Lord of Lords and King of Kings.”
“Hope prevails over despair”. The grieving women encounter not only the angel but the risen Lord. That is why we are able to celebrate, even on a day as overcast by sad memories as this one is. That is why we welcome Ebubechukwu Ethan – and his family and friends – with happy, smiling faces rather than miserable, sad-eyed expressions. We welcome him warmly because we know that, while in his baptism Ethan is going to share the death of Jesus, through that sharing he will enter into a life that is greater than the natural life of mortals. As St Paul told the Christians of Rome, less than thirty years after the events that Matthew is describing, all of us who have been baptised into the death of Jesus will also share in the resurrection life of Jesus, “newness of life”, life lived in God, in the glory of the Father.
St Paul spells out what that “newness of life” means in practice: a life freed from fear of sin, a life freed from fear of death, a life lived in union with the living Son of God, who loves us and gave his life for us. That doesn’t mean that we never suffer or never make a mess of things. It doesn’t mean that we won’t falter or fall away from the standards set by the love which has claimed us for its own, as today it claims Ethan for its own. The Christian life isn’t always “onwards and upwards”. But in the end that doesn’t matter. The words with which Desmond Tutu ended his message to battered and disheartened clergy in South Africa all those years ago still apply: “Oppression and injustice and suffering can’t be the end of the human story. Freedom and justice, peace and reconciliation are his will for all of us, black and white, in this land [South Africa] and throughout the world. Easter says to us that despite everything to the contrary, [God’s] will for us will prevail, love will prevail over hate, justice over injustice and oppression, peace over exploitation and bitterness.”
Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Maundy Thursday (6.4.2023)
Tomorrow is the day when God takes on his enemies: every force in creation that denies truth and goodness and love or perverts them for the sake of status, wealth or power. This evening God takes on his friends. St Paul has just explained to the Christians of Corinth that it won’t do to bring the divisions of wealth and social class into their Christian fellowship meals, so that some members of the church have gone home hungry, while others were getting drunk. Now he reminds them what those meals signify, linking back to the night when Jesus was betrayed, and pointing forward to Christ’s coming. In the meantime, we, like the Corinthians, “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” through our sharing in the bread and wine which are a living reminder now of what Jesus suffered then. This evening is one of those occasions when time folds in on itself and we are with the Corinthians – and with the disciples in that upper room.
That room, so St John tells us, is where Jesus explains to his friends the nature of true authority. He doesn’t use words. He shows them – by taking on the role of the humblest servant. Washing the guests’ feet was a task so demeaning that rabbis ruled that no Jew should be asked to do it for another Jew. No wonder Peter was shocked – even scandalised. “You, Lord, washing my feet?” Jesus is turning the expected order of things, the “natural” order of things, upside down. He is teaching a lesson which Christians down the centuries have been all too ready to forget: that the only true authority is authority that is shown in service.
The Church still operates too often by the rules of the world: bow to the powerful; protect the privileged (especially when “we” are the privileged); don’t rock the boat; don’t challenge the status quo. Whether it is the white nationalism of American evangelicals, the witch-hunt against LGBTQ+ people in parts of Africa, the cover-up by church leaders in every denomination of sexual, physical and spiritual abuse, Christians of every tradition have much to repent.
We have much to repent, too, in relation to the delusive desire for a purity based on exclusion. We forget that those at the Lord’s supper included Judas Iscariot, and that Peter’s role during the coming hours was to be less than heroic. Jesus didn’t fence off a precinct for the perfect, he created a school for sinners, a school from which the students graduate into God’s kingdom as people saved together as members of the broken body of Christ rather than as isolated sinners, each individually striving for salvation. “We strain to see your mercy seat”, as Brian Wren wrote in a hymn sung in many churches on this evening, “and find you kneeling at our feet.”
But too often we don’t. We ignore the one who kneels at our feet, and continue to strain after transcendental power and glory, replicating the structures and the systems of the world. Even in churches which include foot-washing in this evening’s liturgy the messy business with bowl and towel, soap and water and sweaty feet, is sanitised and sacralised. In many churches only the great and the good among the congregation are worthy of the invitation to remove their shoes and socks, so that when Papa Bergoglio first took the rite into a gaol and washed the feet of a dozen prisoners including women and Muslims, he was vilified by some Catholics. But the Pope, I think, has “got it”, as his critics haven’t. His action was about affirming those at the bottom of the heap, including them once more in the community brought to birth by the death and resurrection of Jesus, the community to which we also belong and out of which we pray, with Brian Wren, that Jesus our Lord will
“… take the towel, and break the bread,
And humble us, and call us friends.
Suffer and serve till all are fed,
And show how grandly Love intends
To work till all creation sings,
To fill all worlds, to crown all things.”
Palm Sunday (2.4.2023)
You may have noticed that our posters for events during Lent and Holy Week this year have carried the catchy slogan “Dust and Glory”. That’s the Church of England’s logo for Lent and Holy Week 2023. Today’s Eucharist, though, suggests that those words ought to be the other way round. We began with glory, as we echoed the cheers of the pilgrims from Galilee as their man, “The prophet Jesus from Nazareth”, entered the holy city. We ended a few moments ago with that same Jesus of Nazareth being laid hurriedly in someone else’s tomb: “Dust to dust”, as we say at the committal in the funeral service.
Just now we heard St Matthew’s account of how it all went wrong: how one of Jesus’s friends sold him to his enemies; how the others abandoned him; how Peter denied him; how the authorities abused him; how the soldiers brutalised him and mocked him and crucified him. We heard all of this, a story not just for that age, but for our age, too – and for every age in which innocence is betrayed and friendship sold; in which government abandons its responsibility and the powerless are tortured and killed.
But beneath this story of failure and violent oppression there’s another story being told; in the words of Jesus at the time of his arrest and in his answer to the high priest; in the dream of the governor’s wife; in the actions of the execution squad and the words of their commander. That story is the story of God’s involvement in God’s creation. It tells us what we often forget: that God is in this whole violent, unholy, hopeless mess that we call “being human”, not as an onlooker safely out of the range of human cruelty, but in the midst of it. God is in this with us, in it to the extent that God, in Jesus, becomes the victim offered on the altar of human pride and foolishness and greed for power of which the cross is the logo. The worst thing that could happen does happen and God doesn’t stop loving those who made it happen. God doesn’t stop loving us.
Lent 5 (26.3.2023)
Today we turn away from the challenges of Lent – self-examination, discipline and repentance – and turn our thoughts to Jesus’ last journey to Jerusalem and all that awaited him there – arrest, torture and death, But before we make that final journey, John’s Gospel records one final miracle, in Bethany, about two miles from Jerusalem. Jesus and the Jewish authorities have been playing a game of cat-and-mouse for some time now, and Jesus has withdrawn across the Jordan, to the place where John the Baptist had been baptising before his arrest and execution. It’s while he is there that news reaches him of the illness of his friend Lazarus.
We’ve just heard the story of what happened next, and this morning, I invite to you explore that story from the inside; to imagine that you are with Jesus and the disciples when the news of Lazarus’ illness arrives. What do you want to do?… What do you want Jesus to do?… Lazarus is his friend. He’s probably your friend, too. How do you feel about him being ill?… Do you want to leave for Bethany at once?… Or are you worried about going back into Judaea?… Remember that’s where the authorities were trying to put Jesus to death…
For two days after the message comes Jesus doesn’t move from where he is staying. Does that make you feel anxious?… Or are you secretly relieved?… But then Jesus tells you that Lazarus has died – and that he is going to return to Judea. How do you react to that decision?… Are you happy?… Are you angry that Jesus has taken so long to move that Lazarus has died in the mean time?… How do you reply when Thomas says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him”?…
So, you set out with Jesus and the others. What is the journey like?… Don’t forget you are making it on foot. Do you wish you could travel much faster?… Where are you in the group?… Are you at the front talking to Jesus, or at the back, sharing your anxieties with others?…
How do you feel when you arrive at Bethany and discover that Lazarus has been dead for four whole days?… And then you see Martha, the dead man’s sister. She has come out to meet Jesus before he has even entered the village. How does seeing her affect you?… You listen to her, talking to Jesus, and you hear Jesus reply. Does what he says make sense to you?… What does he mean when he tells Martha “I am the resurrection and the life”?… What does he mean when he talks about those who believe in him not dying?… And what does it mean when Martha tells Jesus “I believe that you are the Messiah”?… That’s dangerous talk if Romans – or their agents – are about!
It’s then that Martha’s sister Mary joins you and Jesus and the others. And she’s followed by a crowd of local people who have come to share her sorrow at the death of Lazarus. All of them are in tears. And then Jesus starts to cry, too. How do you react to that?… He’s usually so strong and in control. What’s going on?…
Now we’re at the place where Lazarus is buried. It’s a cave with a stone lying across the entrance. Jesus tells the crowd to take away the stone. Do you feel happy about that?… Lazarus has been dead four days – and Judaea is pretty warm at this time of year. Martha tries to persuade Jesus not to, but Jesus is determined – and the stone is removed. Where are you in the crowd?… Are you up at the front to see what happens, or hanging back, worried about the stench?… And what’s it like when Jesus shouts “Lazarus, come out!”?… What are you expecting?… What do you see?… How does a man move when he’s bound hand and foot and with his face covered by a cloth?… But Lazarus somehow totters out of the tomb, and Jesus just says, “Unbind him and let him go.” How do you respond to that?… What has happened to Lazarus?… What is happening to you, and the way you think about Jesus?… Has this changed things?… If so, how?.. Jesus promised that you would see God’s glory. Have you?…
Feast of the Annunciation (25.3.2023)
This year’s Lent logo from the Church of England features the words “Dust and Glory”, in a rather fetching autumnal colour scheme which is wasted on our greyscale printer. “Dust and glory” is very much what our celebration today is about. Dust, as we were reminded on Ash Wednesday, is what we are and it is to dust that we shall return. So too is Mary, although the jury is still out when it comes to her return to dust. Glory is the home of the angels, “Far beyond the farthest star”, as Edwin Muir wrote in his poem, “The Annunciation”.
This encounter between “dust and glory”, embodied, if that’s the right word, in Mary and the angel, is one of the key points of the Christian year. The countdown to Christmas, it has been said, starts here. In fact, it’s more than possible that this date determines the date of our celebration of the Lord’s birth, rather than the other way round. The life of Jesus being perfect in every respect, the early Christians believed that its beginning and its ending had to have taken place on the same date – and 25th March was one of the strongest candidates for being the date of his crucifixion. That meant it also had a strong claim to being the date of his conception, so that instead of working backward from Christmas in order to find the right date on which to celebrate Gabriel’s message and the beginning of our salvation, we work forward from Gabriel’s message in order to find the right date on which to celebrate Jesus’ birth.
Now, today has often been seen as a day for preachers to celebrate the obedience of Mary, her humility in accepting the awesome, and potentially dangerous, commission with which the angel charges her: “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son.” However, it’s also a day on which we should take serious notice of what that commission actually means and be astonished: that God the Creator, maker of the galaxies, including that “farthest star” of which Edwin Muir wrote, is about to become a tiny bundle of cells in Mary’s womb, to submit to all the highs and lows of pregnancy – and all its risks. That applies however we may view the story of an angelic messenger bringing perturbation and anxiety to a village household in up-country Palestine. Is Luke telling us that these things actually happened? Or is he borrowing, as he often does in these opening chapters, from the story of Israel, linking this birth, as he is already linking John the Baptist’s birth, to the stories of Abraham or of Samson highlighting by means of a heavenly messenger that this pregnancy, too, is hugely significant beyond the immediate family, hugely significant for the whole people of God?
As indeed it is, because in the conception of Jesus God is not only bringing “dust and glory” together, as Luke brings Gabriel and Mary together. In the conception of Jesus God is uniting dust and glory in the embryo forming in Mary’s womb, so that nine months from now she will give birth to one unique Being, the one in whom God, the author of all being, takes our created frailty and unites it with God’s own being, transforming it into a life which radiates God’s own glory and opening to all humanity the possibility of sharing that glory.
Mothering Sunday/Lent 4 (19.3.2023)
In the media, especially in social media, there has been a lot of talk recently about “culture wars”. They seem to be breaking out everywhere – including in the Church. Which is a pity, because “culture wars” are very often fake: created out of nothing (or not very much) by people who want to distract other people’s attention from what is actually going on in the world. What are often more interesting, not least because they are genuine, are the situations in which cultures don’t go to war, but do clash.
We have one today. In the Western Church, the Fourth Sunday in Lent is traditionally, the Sunday when the Church relaxes its Lenten discipline, when we take a break to get our breath back, so to speak, before setting out along the increasingly steep and rugged path that takes us into Passiontide and the deepening shadows of Holy Week. One mark of this is that I’m dressed in rose pink today instead of the usual purple. Another is that we are about to celebrate Lois’s baptism, which is something that on the other Sundays of Lent would be strettamente vietato! So in England this Sunday is sometimes called “Refreshment Sunday”, but more usually it is known as “Mothering Sunday”, because in the past it was the day when young people hired as domestic servants or farm workers at the previous autumn’s fairs were allowed to go home and visit their family. So today traditionally we focus on family life and, especially on the role of mothers.
But today, by a quirk of the calendar, it is St Joseph’s day. Or it would be if it weren’t a Sunday in Lent. That overrides every saint’s day, even the great Feast of the Annunciation which follows six days later, so poor Joseph has to wait twenty-four hours before we acknowledge what a remarkable man he was – and I’ll be saying more about that at lunch-time tomorrow. That’s the case as far as the Church is concerned. However, Italian culture doesn’t necessarily abide by Church rules, and as far as Italian culture is concerned 19th of March is always St Joseph’s day – and St Joseph’s day is Father’s Day in Italy. So here we are, celebrating motherhood, while the society around us is celebrating fatherhood. There’s a culture clash – but not a culture war!
Now, there’s another clash hidden in today’s Eucharist, and that’s quite a painful one. Mothering Sunday may mark a temporary relaxation of the harshness of Lent, but it doesn’t let us off the hook of recognising that motherhood is not only about giving out hugs when we are sad, and hot meals when we are hungry, and all the rest of the cultural baggage that we often sum up as “motherhood and apple pie”. Both today’s readings remind us that motherhood is also about loss and letting go. The mother of Moses sets him adrift on the Nile in his boat of papyrus and bitumen because the alternative is that he will be murdered by men carrying out Pharaoh’s order that every Hebrew boy is to be killed. The mother of Jesus stands at the foot of the cross watching her son gasp out his life in the agonising death of crucifixion. From childbirth mothers live with the awareness that they have to let their children go; as they grow older, as they move away from home, as they find a place and a partner of their own and start their own family. In Ukraine, in Russia, in many other parts of the world, there are mothers who have had to let their sons and daughters go into the mortal danger of war, in the knowledge that they may not return alive. So, Mothering Sunday can be a bittersweet, even a painful day for mothers.
It can be bittersweet and painful day for children, too. Sarah and Jeffrey and I had only recently begun thinking about possible dates for Lois’s baptism when the news came from Nigeria a fortnight ago that Jeffrey’s mother Cecilia had died, suddenly and unexpectedly. That news makes today’s celebration particularly poignant. The photos and video-clips from today which would have rejoiced her heart won’t now be sent. She won’t have the joy of watching Lois and Brenda grow up, albeit from a long way away. But today’s celebration, with Lois’s baptism as one of its focal points, reminds us that suffering and loss and sorrow are not God’s last words to his creation, nor to us. Lois is baptised, as we are, into the death of Jesus so that she and we may share his resurrection. Moses was drawn out of the waters of the river to lead his people out of slavery into freedom. Jesus died so that we may be alive in God eternally and feeds us at this Eucharist with his body, the bread of life.
Lent 3 (12.3.2023)
The last time I preached on these readings, three years ago, we were three weeks into the first and strictest lock-down. In those days churches were closed except for private prayer and the only valid reasons for leaving our place of residence were shopping for necessities – food and medicine – work, if you were employed in a very limited range of public service jobs, and exercise. It was, as I remember, a time of great thirst, not physical thirst like the Israelites in our first reading, but thirst for human contact which was only partially met by the various online offerings available through the church, or through social media. Otherwise we were on our own.
A bit like that Samaritan woman who met Jesus at Jacob’s well in Sychar. She was very much alone, coming to the well at midday. That’s the time when most people would have been indoors, out of the heat and the blazing sunshine. Did she come then because she wanted to avoid others? Was she afraid of sidelong looks and wagging tongues? Five ex-husbands and a live-in lover would certainly have been regarded as “going it some” in first-century Palestine, and probably still would be today, in most settings – and not only in Palestine.
Now I sometimes wonder what it is that makes women – and men! – turn into what are sometimes called “serial polygamists”. Sometimes, I suspect, it’s a preference for the thrill of the chase over a steady relationship. They can’t cope with what a famous actress many years ago described as “the deep, deep peace of the double-bed after the hurly-burly of the chaise-longue.” Sometimes, it may be a thirst for perfection in a partner, real or imagined. While I’ve been preparing this year’s Lent talks about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I’ve learned a lot about the friends and family whose love sustained him along his lonely journey to the gallows in April 1945. One of that group was his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer. They became engaged in January 1943, less than three months before Bonhoeffer’s arrest, and for the next eighteen months their relationship depended on smuggled letters and the occasional, very precious, prison visit – all of which stopped when Bonhoeffer was moved to a high-security prison in October 1944.
Maria learned of Bonhoeffer’s death in June, 1945, two months after his execution. In the two decades after the war she married twice, one to a fellow-German; once to an American whom she met after moving permanently to the USA in the early 1950s. Neither marriage lasted longer than half a dozen years. Was that, I wonder, because the memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and of his disappearance and death leave her with a thirst that could not be satisfied by anyone else?
We can’t know, any more than we can know what it was that led the Samaritan woman into serial polygamy. But the Samaritan woman is upfront about her thirst – first as verbal sparring with this Jewish stranger who breaks the barriers that separate Jews and Samaritans by asking her for a drink, then in deadly earnest when he starts telling her about “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life”, a spring of water whose source is in God. Then, when he tells her about the nature of true worship, worship offered to the Father “in spirit and in truth”, she abandons her water-jar and her fear of what the neighbours will say. She goes and invites everyone in town to “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!”
That’s an invitation to us, too: to encounter the reality of the living Christ, and to find in our encounter with him that same self-awareness to which he brought the woman at the well, so that it becomes the “spring of water” which satisfies the thirst of our parched souls in a way that no human relationship can and which washes away the barriers which we set up to protect ourselves against others and against God. This season of Lent is a great time for being honest with ourselves, and with God, who knows “everything [we] have ever done”, but doesn’t stop loving us. It’s a time for acknowledging our thirst for contact, not only with other human beings but with ultimate reality and receiving humbly from God the free gift “gushing up to eternal life.”
So let us offer God our worship, today and every day, in spirit and in truth, so that we may be found in Christ when God’s harvest is gathered in.
Lent 2 (5.3.2023)
One of the things that sets St John apart from the other Gospels is the way that he produces vivid little pen-portraits. Some of them raise interesting questions. Why were Mary, Martha and Lazarus unmarried? Their situation was not normal for 1st-century Palestine. And has it ever occurred to you that Nicodemus might have been autistic? A few years ago a friend in England who is on that spectrum pointed out that John describes his behaviour in ways which suggest that Nicodemus might be “neurodivergent”, too. On the three occasions when he appears in John’s Gospel, Nicodemus displays traits which are characteristic of someone who has a brain wired differently from the “neuro-normal”.
Working backwards through the evidence we find that towards the end of his gospel, John tells how Nicodemus brought a huge amount of spices to embalm Jesus’s corpse, “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds”. That’s getting on for fifty kilos, so a huge amount – and that kind of “over-catering” is a recognisably autistic trait. So is Nicodemus’ concern for truth and honesty. He pops up in chapter seven at a meeting of the Jewish Council, where everyone else is plotting to do away with Jesus, and asks about the legality of what they are proposing. That doesn’t go down terribly well with his fellow council-members.
And this morning, near the beginning of John’s gospel, we have a couple more clues. In the first place: Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. That might be because Nicodemus doesn’t want other people to know that he is interested in this radical rabbi from Galilee. Not everybody would have agreed with him that Jesus of Nazareth is “a teacher who has come from God”. That’s how this passage is usually interpreted. But it could equally be because Nicodemus is on the spectrum. Autistic people often suffer from sensory overload. They avoid crowds, loud noises and bright lights because such things cause them serious discomfort – even physical pain. In the second place: Nicodemus takes very literally what Jesus says about being “born from above”. He’s puzzled how a grown human being might get back inside his mother’s womb. Being very literally minded is also a trait we find in autistic friends.
Does this matter? Yes, I think it does. Black and Asian people know a lot about the kind of discrimination that is based on skin colour. Physically disabled people, especially those with mobility issues, also know about discrimination. It’s often built into church buildings. That’s not deliberate. It’s just that they didn’t think about such things in past ages. There are plenty of churches in this city – including, I’m sorry to say, this one – where, if you need step-free access, you have to be pretty determined in order to get inside. The Church Council would love to correct that, but to do so needs money that we haven’t got.
Which brings us back to autistic people. In some churches people whose brains are wired differently are, quite literally, demonised and treated appallingly. In others, people shy away from them because they are “strange”, or make life so uncomfortable for them that they are edged out. That is what happened to my friend when there was a change of minister at the church which she used to attend. Jesus, on the other hand, treats Nicodemus with respect, despite his unconventional behaviour and despite his questions. In fact, John shows us Jesus sharing with Nicodemus teachings that he won’t share with his disciples until much later. Jesus models for us how we should treat everyone who seeks a real relationship with God, however their brains may be wired.
Jesus isn’t concerned only for the “normal” and the “successful”. My autistic friend’s interpretation of the story of Nicodemus reminds us that those who are “different”, those who are “vulnerable” are also welcomed by Jesus, and should be welcomed by us. Not so that we can “cure them”, not so that we can impose our expectations on them or turn them into people just like us, but so that we can discover together what it means to be friends of Jesus and children of his heavenly Father.
Lent 1 (26.2.2023)
My father, who used to read a passage from the Bible every night before he went to sleep, loved the Gospels, because they told him about Jesus. He wasn’t so keen on St Paul. “His language is too flowery”, Dad used to say – meaning not the sort of language you would hear in a busy shipping office like the one where he worked for the best part of half a century. On that score he would probably have had a few choice words about today’s first reading! We really have got St Paul pushing human language to its limits.
But he has to, because what he is describing is pushing human understanding to its limits. What Paul is doing is trying to make sense of what God has done – and is still doing – in Jesus and trying to make sense of it in terms of the whole of human history. Jesus is not just about my sins, my faults and failures, or indeed yours. Jesus is about bringing hope and healing to the whole world. That’s why Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, “as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” Jesus didn’t only come to save a “sweet selected few” He came for everybody. In one sense we are all Adam, but God’s love treats us as though we are all Jesus. Jesus was one with us, even the very worst of us, outcasts, the marginalised, criminals, in his life and in his dying, so God makes us one with him in his risen life. Paul wants the Romans to realise that, even though the human situation is not good, “much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.” Or as a more modern theologian put it when challenged to summarise the Christian faith as simply possible: “God is; God is as he is in Jesus, so there is hope.” That’s a mere thirteen words, all except one of them words of one syllable and none of them longer than five letters. But I think St Paul would have approved.
Now, in a sense, that challenge to simplify is what this season of Lent is about. It’s about pruning our faith back to the essentials, working out what is essential to life, whether we think about it superficially in terms of our “lifestyle” or much more deeply in terms of our relationship with God. What matters? What really matters?
And that, dear sisters and brothers, is what this morning’s gospel is about. That encounter in the wilderness isn’t simply, as they say “of historic interest” – something that may or may not have happened a very long time ago. That encounter in the desert is an encounter which all of us have at some point or other in our lives. What matters? What is the most important thing, not only for Jesus but for us? Is it food, physical comfort, well-being? Does the idea of being able to turn stones into bread appeal? Or is it fame? Is it the thought of doing something spectacular that draws the crowds and makes them gasp? Swinging down from a skyscraper like Spiderman or even bungee-jumping from the campanile of San Lorenzo? Or is it power? Is it the fantasy of controlling the destiny of nations, of being able to do whatever you want? We can see how well that has been playing out in Ukraine during the past twelve months. Or is it the smaller-scale but still ugly reality of controlling the lives of people around you, your partner, perhaps, or children, or the people who work with you or for you?
Those are the three tests, the three traps, set before Jesus; in the wilderness, and in Jerusalem, and on the mountain-top: and he sidesteps each one. What is important to Jesus is not food and physical comfort, not fame, not power. What is central to Jesus is a life lived in union with God, feeding on God’s word, aligned with God’s will in heart and mind, living a life of service to God, worked out in service to the people among whom he proclaimed the good news. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and scholar whose life we will be looking at during this Lent, described Jesus as “the man for others”. Jesus invites those who follow him to be “for others”, too, with lives lived simply and lived in alignment with God. And that brings us back to David Jenkins, that other 20th-century theologian whose words I quoted earlier. When I quoted his simple definition of Christian faith I gave you only half the story. “God is; God is as God is in Jesus, so there is hope.” Yes, indeed. But more than that: “God is; God is for us, so it is worth it.”
Ash Wednesday (22.2.2023)
There’s an old story about a congregation whose members were rather less generous than the average Genovese. One Sunday, after the sidesmen had counted and bagged the coins in the collection plate, the minister looked at the pile of buttons that remained, smiled ruefully and said, “Well, that’s the text for next week’s sermon sorted. Joel 2:13: ‘Rend your hearts and not your garments.’” But, of course, that verse from the prophecies of Joel which we heard a few minutes ago is about rather more than financial stinginess. It is about being prepared to have our hearts broken – broken open so that God can enter them and take possession.
If we keep Lent properly we cannot avoid our heart being broken: broken by the suffering and death of Jesus; broken by the human weakness, the fear and jealousy and anger, that brought him to the cross; broken not only by the physical agony of crucifixion, but by Judas’s betrayal, by the disciples’ desertion, Peter’s denials, the mob’s hostility, Pilate’s capitulation. Broken too by the awareness of our complicity in the sin of the world – not just individual “sins”, our own failings, but the deep alienation from God which runs through our culture and expresses itself in extremes of wealth and poverty, in a fear of the stranger that shades into outright hatred, and in the exploitation of the powerless and the voiceless by people in positions of authority and control.
It is normal for human beings to want to protect themselves from such heart-break. It is natural for us to wrap ourselves up in the apparent warmth of what is sometimes called “the false self”, the “self” which wants to keep the suffering of the world at a safe distance, which is comfortable with prospering at the expense of others and which is very uncomfortable with the awareness of its own mortality. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return?” I’d rather not be reminded of that, thank you very much – though as I approach my three-quarter century it becomes ever harder to avoid! But it is only as that false self is broken down that a deeper connection with God is possible. It is only as that false self is broken down that true community, true sharing becomes possible.
So for us, the task of Lent is not heroic self-denial, but a quiet laying aside of the things that keep us from God, a clearing of the blockages which prevent God’s love from flowing in us and through us. Among those blockages we can see the rush to judgement, the willingness to point the finger, the readiness to throw stones – until, that is, we are reminded of our own failings, as Jesus reminds the scribes and Pharisees in today’s gospel, that curious story which has no fixed abode in the manuscript tradition but is usually to be found floating somewhere around the end of the seventh chapter of John’s Gospel and occasionally migrates to the 21st chapter of Luke’s. We don’t know where it comes from. It certainly doesn’t come from John’s pen. But clearly there were people in the early Church who thought that this story said something very important.
And indeed it does. It reminds us that when we are most eager to expose the sins of others we are often placing ourselves in the dock. One wonders to what lengths that group of scribes and Pharisees had gone in order to trap the wretched woman whom they dragged before Jesus. It has a whiff reminiscent of a stake-out by the tabloid press in our own day. One also wonders what happened to the man in this extra-marital fling, who figures nowhere in the story. Was he part of a “sting”? The woman’s accusers clearly thought that they could use her to embarrass Jesus, but found their cunning plan rebounding on them, as Jesus bent down to write in the dust.
What Jesus wrote we don’t know. Some commentators suggest that it was sentences from the Law of Moses. Whoever wrote the script for one mediaeval mystery play about this story had the ingenious idea that in those marks which Jesus scratched in the dust each of the woman’s accusers could see their own sins listed – and that’s why they “made an excuse and left”. However we explain it, what is clear is that the woman is left to face the judgement of Love, incarnate in Jesus – and that Love does not condemn her but instead releases her to begin a new life. “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” At the ashing Love will confront us with the same gift of freedom, as the reminder of our mortality breaks open our protective false self – and with the same challenge: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.”
Sunday next before Lent (19.2.2023)
The Eucharist included thanksgiving for the birth of a child.
So here it is. A brief flash of Easter glory to encourage us, just before we launch ourselves into the desert of Lent and the deepening shadows of Holy Week. Jesus has climbed that mountain, like Moses and Elijah in search of God. Unlike Moses and Elijah, when Jesus climbs that mountain, he isn’t going in search of God: he is going so that he can be affirmed as the Son of God. Matthew tells us: “While [Peter] was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’” Listen to what he says – and to what he doesn’t say. Listen to what he says about God’s Kingdom: about justice, acceptance, love, humility, about the destructive effects of power and status and money – and a reputation for holiness. And listen to his silences about so many of the things that the Churches get steamed up about: including sex, and who has power over women’s bodies, and the language of worship, and women – oh, and did I mention sex?
Unlike Moses in our first reading, who went up the mountain to collect “the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which [God had] written for [Israel’s] instruction”, Jesus doesn’t need to collect anything. He doesn’t need to collect God’s teaching, a new version of “the law and the commandment” given to Moses on Mount Sinai. He doesn’t need to collect God’s teaching because he embodies God’s teaching. He brings it alive not in words carved on stone tablets but in human flesh and bone. That is why, at the very beginning of his Gospel, Matthew talks about Jesus as Emmanuel, God with us, with us to show us what it is to be truly human; to live according to the image and likeness of God in which each of us has been created, an image and likeness that we cannot lose, no matter how often we wound God’s love and mar God’s image in us.
Now, this morning we will shortly focus our attention on another Emmanuel, as we give thanks for the birth of Rosemary and Stephen’s baby son, a kid brother for Victor and a little cousin for Joy and Precious and Gift. We give thanks for his safe arrival in this world and because he too bears the image and likeness of God. He too has the potential to shine like the sun as he learns to follow Jesus.
So do all of us, but not if, like Peter, we try to capture the moment when everything seemed wonderful and real and shining like the sun and hold on to it: not if, like Peter, we try to trap our experience, as he tried to trap Jesus and Moses and Elijah inside those three “dwellings”, whatever they might have been, tents, perhaps, or simple stone shelters. We’ve talked a lot during the past twelve months about this “dwelling” and how important it has been during the past 150 years for English-speaking people in Genova. However, it hasn’t been important because of what it trapped inside it, but because of what has come out of it; pioneering priests like Alfred Strettell, who saw the need for a new hospital in the city and guided it through the first two decades of its existence; faithful pastors like Edward Bayly, who wore himself out ministering to the English-speaking seafarers whose ships called into Genova; committed laymen and women like Harold Swan, Nellie Rhode, Peter Jones, Jill Medici, Wendy Catchpole, Anne Haigh, people who have made a difference to the lives of those around them.
They didn’t stay in a holy huddle on a holy mountain, they went out into this city and lived in the light of Christ. The coming season of Lent is a challenge to us to do the same, not by very showily “giving things up”, but by paring back the busyness of our lives so that the light of Christ can shine into us – and through us; by making time to heed the words of that voice from the cloud. ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ That isn’t always easy. It can make us feel very uncomfortable and conflicted, because the light of Christ shows up the grubbiness of our lives, our faults and failures. We aren’t always “the good guys”. We are human beings. We sin. We fail. But the same light that shows up our grubbiness also heals us and cleanses us and shows us the right path – even if that path leads us, as we follow Jesus, to the foot of his cross. We follow him because we trust that he will lead us beyond “Skull Hill” up to the high mountain where he will transfigure us into his likeness, and because we realise that he is, as Charles Wesley described him, “Jesus our Emmanuel”, God with us, and with us always, both in the brightest glory and in the deepest shadow.
2 before Lent (12.2.2023)
The latest estimate is that more than 28,000 people have died in south-east Turkey and northern Syria in last Monday’s earthquakes. The UN’s emergency relief coordinator, who is currently in Turkey, has said that he is bracing himself for the possibility that that figure could more than double. The news that people are still being pulled alive out of the rubble is some encouragement for the rescue workers, but not much for those who have lost families and homes and livelihoods in the ruin of so many towns and cities. And the icy weather, and the difficulty of access to the region as roads have been wrecked by the movement of the earth, means that on top of the thousands killed by collapsing buildings, many more are likely to die from cold and lack of food because national and international aid agencies can’t get supplies through.
And then we are faced with this morning’s Gospel. “Do not worry,” Jesus tells the disciples. “Look at the birds…Consider the lilies…” How do we hear those words as good news when people are suffering as the people of Turkey and northern Syria are suffering? Don’t forget that, while Syria may have dropped out of the headlines in recent years, driven out by the pandemic and the cost of living crisis and Russian invasion of Ukraine, the country is still a war zone. The rebel-held areas in the north are receiving their normal supply of emergency aid but not the heavy lifting gear they need. “Do not worry?”
But, in a sense, that’s the most realistic course to take. The question Jesus asks is very pertinent: “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” Can any of those caught up in this horrific disaster bring the aid convoys any quicker by worrying – or by taking to the streets with looted firearms? Of course not. There are so many factors which cannot be measured or predicted. They can only wait – and hope. Like St Paul, writing to the churches in Rome, “we know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now.” We know that these convulsions of the earth are part of the way in which our planet grows and changes, as God’s creative purposes continue to work themselves out through the aeons of geological time.
So we cling on to Paul’s image of the whole creation in labour. We wait to see what those labour pains will bring forth in terms of solidarity and help. At the same time, those of us who aren’t directly involved on the ground can follow Jesus’ other command to the disciples: “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Those who can are encouraged to give to one of the agencies bringing relief to the stricken areas. There’s information on the church’s Facebook page about how you can do that. Those who can’t afford to give, pray! Pray for the timely arrival of rescue workers, medical staff, food, machinery, warm clothing, shelter. Pray as if your life depended on it – because theirs does! And remember the wise words of Archbishop William Temple, when he was asked if “answers to prayer” were anything more than coincidences: “When I pray,” replied Temple, “coincidences happen, and when I don’t, they don’t.”
Sometimes those coincidences look more like miracles. Already there has been one major miracle to accompany the daily miracles of people being pulled alive from the rubble even now, nearly a week after the buildings collapsed. A border crossing between Turkey and Armenia has been opened for the first time in thirty-five years to allow aid convoys from Armenia through into Turkey. That may not sound much, but given the history between Christian Armenia and Muslim-majority Turkey – a history which includes a determined Turkish attempt around a century ago to wipe the Armenians from the face of the earth – it is miraculous. That the Armenians’ response has been a response of compassion, despite their continuing problems with other Muslim neighbours in Azerbaijan, is a sign of God’s presence in the midst of this disaster and that, as we repeated in the refrain to this morning’s Psalm, “God’s mercy endures for ever.”
So as we mourn with the bereaved, with those who have lost everything, with those who have little food and inadequate shelter, we also give thanks for those who are working, at great risk to their own well-being, to bring the living to safety, to give dignity to the dead, to provide food and shelter for survivors. In them we can catch a glimpse of the revealing of the children of God, the God whose mercy endures for ever.
3 before Lent (5.2.2023)
Last Sunday, to mark the end of Christmastide, we all took lighted candles and went in procession to the back of the church where we solemnly blew them out. It was a sharp reminder that we can’t live forever in the warm glow of the Christmas season, and that we are sent out from our celebration of the Saviour’s birth into a cold, hard world where there are many pressures to forsake the light of Christ, however joyfully we, like old Simeon, may have greeted him as “the Light of the world”.
So, then we come to church a week later and we hear those words of Jesus which come slap in the middle of this morning’s Gospel. Not affirming that he is the light of the world, as he does in John’s Gospel, but telling the dozen or so men, and, I suspect, a few more women – the inner group whom he had called out of the crowd and gathered round him on that mountainside in Galilee – telling them “You are the light of the world.” You are – and that “you” includes all of us who are committed to being Jesus’ disciples.
We are light because we have responded to his invitation to live in his light. We are the light because as we share in the bread of communion we share in his life – and his life is light for all people. That’s at the heart of the Christmas message. We are light in him, the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness did not – because it cannot – overcome it.
This morning we are bringing Lois to that light. Not to become part of it – not yet, at any rate. That will happen when Sarah and Jeffrey think she’s ready – or they’re ready. This morning, we are bringing Lois to say “Thank you”; thank you first of all for her safe arrival on 15th November; but also thank you that even as a baby she is part of that tiny circle of light which is a Christian family: thank you that as she grows in that family she will learn to walk in the light of the Lord. And she will learn to do that, in the same way that all of us learn, by listening to and by watching other people. As she looks out on the world she will soon begin to recognise what the people around her think is important. She will also begin to recognise who they think is important. Is it that person on TikTok? That “influencer” who is all over social media this week?
Or is it the person proclaimed by St Paul in Corinth? Not, as Paul said, with “lofty words or wisdom”. No. Paul reminds those Christians in Corinth, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” He is “God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.” But “Hang on a moment”, someone may be thinking: “Isn’t Jesus telling us to reveal the glory? How can he be ‘secret and hidden’ in that case?”
Well, he’s secret and hidden because the world didn’t recognise him – unlike those “influencers” with thousands of followers on social media. What does Paul say? “None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” The child that Simeon proclaimed as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel”, grew into a man who was put to death by people who didn’t recognise him, didn’t understand what God was doing in him and thought that they, and the world, would be better off without him. Jesus disturbs us, through what he says, through what he does, through what is done to him by those who did not understand “God’s wisdom, secret and hidden”.
And yet Jesus is still the “influencer”. He is the one who has permanently changed the world. The years of our era are numbered from the year of his birth. Most “influencers” are up one week and down the next as people follow and unfollow them. Jesus is the one who, two thousand years after his life on earth began, still has millions of followers around the world, followers who have found his Spirit searching their depths and connecting them with God’s depths, filling them with his light and life, even where the shadows are deepest. For Jesus our Lord does not only “shine on” us, as we shall sing in our final hymn this morning. Jesus also shines in us, if only we will let him, and it is his light, now become our light, which shines before others, so that they may see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father in heaven”.
Presentation of Christ in the Temple (29.1.2023)
You’re an old man now. A very old man. You’ve seen it all. When you were a child you saw the Romans come. You heard from horrified elders how their general defiled the Temple by going into the Holiest Place – an unbelieving Gentile, going into the place which only the High Priest can enter and then on only one day in each year. You heard the tramp of Roman armies crossing and recrossing your land, marching to battle against their enemies, then marching against one another, bringing death and destruction, pillaging houses, towns, villages, burning crops. You saw the eventual winners parcelling out the plunder, making and unmaking High Priests, setting up their puppet king in Jerusalem, an Edomite chancer named Herod. Not a real Jew, but ruthless in clinging to power.
Despite that, you never despaired. You never gave up hope of better days. You kept the Law faithfully. You prayed. Then one day, deep inside, the realisation came to you. In your bones you knew it. You would see God’s Messiah, the one anointed by the Lord to bring healing and prosperity and peace to Israel. You would see the Lord, “suddenly come to his temple”, as the prophet had promised. So you waited, and watched, and prayed, one of a cluster of men – and some women, widows, most of them – who hardly ever left the temple precincts. You joined in the prayers. You fasted. And you waited.
One day, as you waited, a second moment of realisation came. The Lord whom you sought had “suddenly come to his temple”. It was time for you to go out and look for him. Not that you’d need to look very hard. What had the prophet said? That “he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap”: that he would purify the temple and its worship: that he would sit in judgement on the people, “swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien.” That ought to be easy enough to find.
Except it isn’t. No blazing fires. No heavenly court in session. Not even a warlord with his army. Just a family from up country come to do what is needful for their firstborn son.
And now, for the third time, you have that feeling in your bones. This is it. This six-week-old child is the one, the Lord’s Messiah. He can’t be. But he is. This is the one you have waited so many years to encounter. This is the fulfilment of all your hopes and dreams. So you give thanks to God. The words come tumbling out. “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace… My eyes have seen your salvation!” Then something bigger than you, bigger than Israel, takes over. This child fulfilling your dreams, this embodiment of Israel’s salvation, has been “prepared in the presence of all peoples.”, not just for Israel, then; not just for those who find their meaning in obeying the Law. This baby is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” That’s not what you were expecting – nor any of the others who were “looking forward to the consolation of Israel”.
And then that feeling within you becomes more worrying. Salvation, if it’s a salvation that includes Jews and Gentiles, is going to be costly: for the child, and for his parents. Your part in the drama is almost over. They, and especially the boy’s mother, will have to live with it and to suffer, as he will suffer. “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel,” and those who are falling won’t thank him for that – nor, for that matter, will some of those who are rising, to responsibilities they did not seek and to eminence that makes them targets. So, as the years progress, he will certainly become “a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” Inner thoughts that may well be of rejection and murder.
That imagined inner journey of Simeon reflects the journey that we are about to take, from the joyful celebration of Christmas, through the self-discipline and austerity of Lent, to the gathering gloom of Holy Week and the deep, deadly shadows of Good Friday. We too have been granted the vision of a world renewed, God’s people consoled, of peace and justice and healing for all. And we have been warned that the way to that vision’s becoming reality is likely to be dangerous and painful, for us and for others —“and a sword will pierce your own soul too”, as it pierced Mary’s. But, unlike Simeon, we have seen God’s love at work in the suffering of his unexpected Messiah so that Simeon’s hope has become fulfilment and life for all.
Epiphany 3 (22.1.2023)
The Sunday of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
Way back in the 1980s “Church Growth” (capital “c”, capital “g”) was the thing for some congregations. Obviously “church growth” (small “c”, small “g”) is always the thing – or ought to be – for every congregation. God has put us here to share the good news about Jesus and to be good news to the people among whom we live and work. But the “Church Growth Movement” was something that started in the USA and was taken up by Christians in other parts of the English-speaking world. One of the central ideas of the movement, as I remember it, was that, in order to to grow, churches had to attract people who were like its existing members. In other words you built up a congregation of people who looked alike, thought alike – probably voted alike, too – came from the same part of town, did similar jobs and fell within the same income bracket.
Then you look at us… Where did we go wrong?
Then you read this morning’s gospel, and the prophecy of Isaiah which sparked Matthew’s imagination when he described how Jesus burst onto the scene in Galilee after he heard that John had been arrested. There is nothing about building a coalition of the like-minded or the like-salaried. The carpenter’s son from up-country Nazareth moves to the lakeside fishing community of Capernaum and recruits – not carpenters, not even boat-builders, but fishermen. And he does it in one of the most ethnically and culturally mixed regions of first-century Palestine.
Matthew picks that up in his introduction when he reminds us that Capernaum falls in the territory which had once belong to the Israelite tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, the territory which the prophet had described as “Galilee of the Gentiles”. The “land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali” had been the first part of the Kingdom of Israel to be annexed by the Assyrians and have its people deported and replaced by a mixed bag of people from other parts of the Middle East. He rubs it in when he gives us the names of the first four disciples. Simon and Andrew had Greek names. The sons of Zebedee had Jewish names. Lake Galilee was the boundary between the Jewish and Gentile worlds. Hopeless from the “Church Growth” movement’s point of view.
That’s something worth thinking about at this mid-point of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The unity that we are called to seek is not the unity of the like-minded. Nor is it a unity defined by race or culture or social class. The unity that we are called to seek is the unity driven by Jesus’ proclamation: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ And, in case anyone needs reminding, “repent” doesn’t mean saying sorry, or even being sorry (the two don’t necessarily go together!). That’s “penitence”. Repentance” means changing the way we look at things, the way we think about things, the way we understand things. The German word for repentance, “Umkehr”, which literally means “turning around”, explains the idea rather better.
And when Jesus goes through Galilee, teaching and preaching and healing, he isn’t saying “Save time: see things my way”. He’s telling his hearers to turn their lives around so that they can enter God’s kingdom, which is like no earthly kingdom. As the Welsh poet R.S. Thomas wrote:
“It’s a long way off but inside it There are quite different things going on: Festivals at which the poor man Is king and the consumptive is Healed; mirrors in which the blind look At themselves and love looks at them Back; and industry is for mending The bent bones and the minds fractured By life. It’s a long way off, but to get There takes no time and admission Is free, if you purge yourself Of desire, and present yourself with Your need only and the simple offering Of your faith, green as a leaf.”
“Present yourself with your need only”, says Thomas. Christians will find true unity once we have learned to do that and stopped trying to pretend that we know all the answers – and that they are the right answers – and stopped trying to wield power over others because we’ve got the right answers. The call to unity means dismantling our structures of power and authority. The call to unity means no longer seeking what I want, but seeking what God wants, offering our faith and trust, “green as a leaf”.
Epiphany 2 (15.1.2023)
When you mention the first chapter of John’s Gospel, the odds are that people will think of the fourteen verses which make up the Gospel’s Prologue, with its affirmation that God’s eternal Word became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, and its explanation of what that means for the world in general and for Christian believers in particular. Those verses contain profound insights into the faith which we hold – and they don’t prepare us at all for the series of vivid pen-portraits which follow. They begin by establishing the place of John the Baptist in the great story of salvation. They go on, as we heard just now, to set out the relationship between John and Jesus. They outline, as we also heard, how a group of disciples began to gather around Jesus.
Today’s gospel reading marks the shift from describing how John appeared and preached and baptised to the beginnings of that community gathered around Jesus, and it tells a story rather different from Mark’s and Matthew’s and Luke’s. Ten days ago, when the same passage came up as the gospel reading at our mid-week Communion, we explored some possible reasons for that. Today, though, I want to focus on what the way in which John tells this story says about Jesus – and about us.
Let’s begin with John the Baptist. On one level his overheard remark is setting up the encounter between two of his own disciples and Jesus. On another level John is bearing witness to “the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” On yet another level he is establishing the arc of the whole story told by John the Evangelist. In proclaiming Jesus as “the Lamb of God” the Baptist points us toward the timing of his death at Passover, when the Lamb will be sacrificed, like the Passover lamb, to mark the liberation of God’s people and a new beginning.
But that lies a long way ahead. In this series of lightning sketches, what we learn next is the effect that John’s words had on two of his own disciples. They hear him bear witness and decide to investigate further. They “tail” Jesus, rather like police officers keeping a suspect under surveillance, until he turns and challenges them. ‘What are you looking for?’
What happens next suggests that they don’t actually know, because they answer Jesus’ question with another: “Where are you staying?” What they do know, at this stage, is that they want to prolong this encounter – and Jesus encourages them to do that when he tells them, “Come and see.” That is rather more than an invitation to tea and biscuits. It’s an invitation to Andrew and his companion to experience for themselves who Jesus is and where he is, as we might say, rooted. It’s an invitation to experience Love in action.
That, in the end, is what Christian faith is about. It isn’t about believing six impossible things before breakfast, like the White Queen in “Through the Looking Glass”. It isn’t about signing up to the likes and dislikes of your favourite online guru, or to slogans, or theories, or formulae. It isn’t about living by a complicated rule-book. Christian faith is about encountering a person, a person who loves each one of us, no matter how often and how badly we foul up, a person who loves us without limit and without conditions. It’s about finding that person and following that person wherever the journey takes us.
And it’s about sharing with others what we have discovered. When we have encountered Christ we want to bring others to Jesus as Andrew brought Simon – not hauling them by the collar, but taking their hand and leading them to someone who shows us what it is to be truly human, someone who opens up a new level of living, revealing in our words and in our actions the attractiveness of Jesus. We can’t frighten or bully people into belief – though an awful lot of people down the centuries have tried to. All we can do is to share what we have found, to repeat the invitation which Jesus offered to Andrew and his companion, “Come and see”.
Jesus invites us, too, to discover where he is staying, to encounter him in our praying, in our reading the Bible, in other people, and above all in our sharing of this meal which he left to his friends, the meal through which we live in him and he makes his home in us.
The Baptism of Christ (8.1.2023)
The Feast of the Epiphany and these weeks of Epiphanytide which follow are much more than a reminder of the coming of the wise men to worship the child Jesus. The word “epiphany” means “manifestation” or “revelation”. On the personal level it’s what we sometimes call a “light-bulb moment”, when we suddenly recognise a truth that has so far escaped us, or when we realise that there is a connection, a relationship, of which we have previously been unaware. So, the key Bible texts for this time of year are not just St Matthew’s description of the coming to the magi, which some of us heard on Friday, but St John’s account of the “sign” that Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee, when he turned water into wine, and the story we have heard in this morning’s Gospel, which tells how Jesus came to the river to be baptised by John and what happened then.
What happened then is a classic expression of the truth that the way down is the way up. Jesus joins the crowds who were coming to John for baptism in the river Jordan, “confessing their sins” as St Matthew tells us. John is baffled. He tries to stop him. He asks what Jesus is doing, coming to him for baptism. Oughtn’t it to be the other way round?
John, like most of us, lived in a “top-down” world. That’s true of most religious people. They begin with God up there in heaven, and then they try to explain everything down here in relationship to that. But what Jesus actually taught was something much closer to ‘from the bottom up’. So Jesus goes down into the water, alongside the tax-collectors and other sinners, even alongside members of the religious establishment. He goes down – and when he comes up out of the water something strange and wonderful happens.
Now, the story of Jesus’s baptism is one of the very few which appears in all four Gospels. The details may differ, but on one point they are agreed. When he came up out of the water Jesus, and John, and possibly others, had a massive light-bulb moment, an “epiphany”. It became clear to them who Jesus is, and what he is about. “Suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”
That is a theme which St Luke took up in our first reading, when Peter told Cornelius and his household “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” Paradoxically, that “doing good” was what led him to the cross. “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.” “They”, the leaders of the people and the Roman authorities, also lived in a top-down world. “They” found the activity of Jesus disturbing. Instead of seizing power and exercising it in the ways expected of kings and religious leaders, Jesus simply empowered others. He climbed down the ladders of influence and the pyramids of power instead of scrambling up them. He released power instead of grasping hold of it. He served instead of domineering. In the end, he overturned all the conventional top-down understandings of power —to the point where he himself chose to be killed rather than kill.
The Jesus who comes to John to be baptised is “[God’s] Son, the Beloved, with whom [God is] well pleased.” He is also the Christ into whose death we have been baptised. We, like Jesus, have gone down into the water. We, like Jesus, have been raised by God to new life, life in Jesus. We have been raised to carry on his work, to go about doing good and healing all who are oppressed by the demons of our own age, to preach – and to live (which is much more difficult) – peace and forgiveness. As Teresa of Avila pointed out nearly five centuries ago, Christ has no hands now on earth but ours, no eyes but ours, no feet but ours on which he can “go about doing good”.
In a few moments, we shall renew the promises made at our baptism. As we do so, let us pray that our eyes may be opened to the possibilities of living from the bottom up, so that our lives become channels for God’s liberating, healing power.
Epiphany of Our Lord (6.1.2023)
We talked on Wednesday about the first chapter of John’s Gospel as “the gift that keeps on giving” to those who take the trouble to penetrate the many layers which lie below the surface of John’s account of Jesus, the incarnate word living among us. Today we also find ourselves talking about gifts, the gifts brought by those mysterious “wise men from the east” in the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. They had observed a star at its rising and realised that this movement in the heavens was the sign that a new king had been born – a king to whom they must pay homage.
The gifts which they carried with them were the tokens of that homage, whether as the tools of their trade according to some scholars, or, as the traditional carols and hymns of this Epiphany season remind us, “sacred gifts of mystic meaning”, pointing us to the kingship and the godhead of the child to whom the star led them, and pointing forward to the cross which awaited him. In either case they too have become “the gift that keeps on giving” – to artists and craftsmen of all kinds, to poets and preachers, to novelists.
Evelyn Waugh’s novel, “Helena”, imagines the emperor Constantine’s mother, the protectress of the Holy Places, in her old age falling into a reverie in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and dreaming that she is conversing with the wise men. “‘Like me,’ she said to them, ‘you were late in coming. The shepherds were here long before; even the cattle. They had joined the chorus of angels before you were on your way… How laboriously you came, taking sights and calculating, where the shepherds had run barefoot! How odd you looked on the road, attended by what outlandish liveries, laden with such preposterous gifts! You came and were not turned away. You too found room before the manger. Your gifts were not needed, but they were accepted and put carefully by, for they were brought with love. In that new order of charity that had just come to life, there was room for you too.’”
As there was room for them in the sermon which Lancelot Andrewes preached before King James at Whitehall on Christmas Day, 1622, the sermon which inspired T.S. Eliot’s 1927 poem “The Coming of the Magi”. Eliot’s opening lines “A cold coming we had of it…” are lifted straight out of Andrewes’ sermon – and W.H. Auden seems to be hinting at the same passage (and taking a sidelong look at Eliot’s poem) in the scene from his Christmas oratorio, “For the Time Being”, in which the Wise Men explain “the reason [they] follow this star.”
Now, when Auden’s Wise Men finally arrive in Bethlehem they find the Shepherds still there, making the same contrast which Andrewes makes between the distance that the wise men have travelled, and the shortness of the shepherds’ journey. The place they came from “was not hard by, as the shepherd’s (but a step to Bethlehem, over the fields): This was riding many a hundred miles, and cost them many a dayes journey.” But despite the contrast between the Wise Men’s journey “through stifling gorges, over level lakes, tundras intense and irresponsive seas” and the journey of the Shepherds, who “have walked a thousand miles yet only worn the grass between our home and work away”, they come together in homage to the Christ child, singing together:
“Released by Love from isolating wrong, Let us for Love unite our various song, Each with his gift according to his kind Bringing this child his body and his mind.”
As they do so, they remind us that both in Matthew’s account of the journey of the magi and in Luke’s story of the arrival of the shepherds we are drawn into a double movement and a double giving. The initial movement is God’s, entering his creation via Mary’s womb and submitting to the cruel death of the cross: Love incarnate releasing us “from isolating wrong.” But that movement of Love calls forth, as Evelyn Waugh’s Helena recognised, a movement from our side, that movement of self-offering which Christina Rossetti sums up in the closing lines of “In the bleak mid-winter”,
“What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would play my part. Yet what I can I give him, give my heart.”
Naming and Circumcision of Jesus (1.1.2023)
When I worked in Slough, many years ago, I would sometimes hear from black members of the congregation that they had been targeted by other black people, usually Muslims, who told them that they ought to abandon Christianity because it was “the white man’s religion.” I wonder if that is an experience shared by our Nigerian members here – and, if it is, how did they reply?
Those are questions worth thinking about today, because today we are confronted in both our readings by the fact that Christianity is very much not “the white man’s religion”. What does St Paul tell the Galatians in our first reading? “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law.” It’s that “born under the law” which is the key. It reminds us that Jesus was Jewish: Semitic, like Muhammad, not Caucasian. So were his first followers. So, indeed, was Paul.
Jesus was Jewish by birth and by upbringing. St Luke makes that clear again and again in the opening chapters of his gospel. As he does in today’s Gospel reading. A week after his birth Mary and Joseph called in the local mohel to do the necessary with his flint knife, thereby making Jesus part of God’s covenant community. And the name he was given could hardly be more Jewish. Yeshua is the later, shortened, form of the name Yehoshua, or Joshua. It means “the Lord saves” or “the Lord rescues”. It’s the name borne by Moses’ chief assistant, and eventual successor, Joshua, the son of Nun. It’s the name of one of the governors of Jerusalem in the time of King Josiah of Judah. It’s the name of the Jewish high priest in the time of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah.
So how does a faith with its roots so firmly in the Middle East come to be associated so closely with Europeans – and with white North Americans? Part of the answer comes in the first part of today’s Gospel. As Luke tells the story of the birth of Jesus, he makes it clear that this birth is “good news of great joy for all the people” – even those despised outsiders, the shepherds. They stood pretty near the top in most rabbis’ lists of “despised trades”. They were the sort of men that, if you were a devout Jew, you wouldn’t want your daughter to marry. So, right from the beginning the good news of Jesus is for those on the outside, with no limits.
Now, suddenly, those despised shepherds realise that they have a story to tell. And they tell it. “They made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” Even when they finally headed back to their work in the fields outside Bethlehem, they can’t keep quiet about it. “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”
That, eventually, is how Christian faith reached Europe, through people fired up with that “good news of great joy for all the people”; people like Paul and his companions Silas and Timothy. But it wasn’t only Europe. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, and after the experience of Pentecost, those who had travelled with Jesus along the dusty roads of Palestine took off in all directions: deeper into what we call “the Middle East”; across the ocean into India. As John will confirm, there were Christians in India long before there were Christians in Britain. And there were Christians in Africa. The Acts of the Apostles tell us about a royal official from Ethiopia who encountered Philip the Deacon and was baptised by him on his way home from an official visit to Jerusalem. And for the first five centuries of our era, long before the armies of Islam swept into the Maghreb, North Africa, including Egypt, produced some of the greatest Christian thinkers and teachers and writers: men like Tertullian and Cyprian in Carthage, like Clement and Origen in Alexandria, not to mention Athanasius, Cyril, Augustine of Hippo, at least three Popes, and all those holy men and women who followed St Anthony into the Egyptian desert – including Abba Moses. who came from what is now Sudan.
Today, then, as we celebrate the naming and circumcision of Jesus, and as we look forward in hope that this new year may bring peace and healing to the nations and to this planet, we pray for a deepening awareness that the “good news of great joy for all the people” which drove the shepherds into Bethlehem is good news, not just for one race, or culture, or nation, but for the whole world, which God so loved that he sent his only Son to be our Jesus, our Saviour – whatever the colour of our skin.
Christmas Day (25.12.2022)
Two quotations, nearly twenty centuries apart. The first comes from the Letter to the Hebrews, our first reading this morning. Pondering the meaning of Jesus, the writer to the Hebrews said this: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” A modern writer, Juergen Moltmann, puts it more simply: “Jesus is God’s Son. He makes visible to us what God intended when he created us to be his image.”
“He makes visible to us what God intended.”
Jesus makes visible to us what God intended when he made you, when he made me, when he made Mother Theresa of Calcutta and Desmond Tutu and Pope Francis – and when he made Vladimir Putin, and Joe Biden and Muhammadu Buhari. And God gave them, as God gives us, a choice. Jesus comes into the world as light, light that shines in the darkness, “and the darkness did not overcome it.” But it tried. My word it tried. People did not like the light – they still don’t like the light, because it shows up the shabbiness of much human life. So people resisted the light. They thought that they had put out the light. But they couldn’t. The light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness still hasn’t overcome it. Jesus still makes makes visible to us what God intended.
And he challenges us to do better: not by making a heroic moral effort, relying on our own strength; but by simply putting our trust in him and allowing him to transform our lives. That’s one of the reasons why he comes to us at first as a baby. Ask any parent and they will tell you that from day one, the arrival of a baby changes everything. But babies doesn’t change their parents’ lives by their strength: they change them by their weakness, their helplessness, their vulnerability. In the same way, Jesus reveals his transforming power as much by his weakness as by his miracles. The writer to the Hebrews reminded us that Jesus makes purification for sins. He takes away the sins of the world, as we shall say later in this Eucharist; and he does that by undergoing the agony and humiliation of the cross.
That is love carried to the uttermost. That is why on this day, when with great joy we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we also commemorate the death of Jesus – and the centrepiece of the party is not a birthday cake, but the bread and wine which are for us his body and his blood. In that we see most vividly and starkly “what God intended when he created us to be his image.” What God intended was lives lived in dependence on God, and marked by self-giving love. What God intended was not the violence which has shadowed so much of human history, so much of the past year; violence set in motion by the pride, foolishness and greed of powerful men.
The Christ whose birth we celebrate today does not come to us as the war-lord, the mighty warrior desired by so many, then and now. The Christ whose birth we celebrate today comes as a displaced person, his family moved from their home by official diktat, then as refugees from state-sponsored violence. Ten days ago, during the Royal Carol Service at Westminster Abbey in London, Kristin Scott Thomas read this poem at King Charles’s special request:
We think of him as safe beneath the steeple, Or cosy in a crib beside the font, But he is with a million displaced people On the long road of weariness and want. For even as we sing our final carol His family is up and on that road, Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel, Glancing behind and shouldering their load. Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled, The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power, And death squads spread their curse across the world. But every Herod dies, and comes alone To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.
Let us pray:
Word made flesh, life of the world, in your incarnation you embraced our poverty and experienced the cruelty of men: by your Spirit may we share in your riches and know the peace and forgiveness which are your great gifts to all humanity. Amen.
Advent 4 (18.12.2022)
The marriage of Ilaria Fabbiano and Alessandro Galeno was blessed during the Eucharist.
Last year on this Sunday we heard St Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, which puts us in the picture from the Virgin Mary’s point of view. This year, St Matthew is keen to give us Joseph’s side of the story. And it feels quite different. Mary’s free response to the angel’s message has caused a lot of problems. “She was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” In other words, she was carrying in her womb a baby that wasn’t Joseph’s. Which put both of them in a very difficult position – and Mary in danger of her life. Joseph, Matthew tells us, was “a righteous man”, which meant that he was what we might call “observant”, “praticante” would be the Italian equivalent. In other words, he kept the Law of Moses; and the Law of Moses as it applied to relationships between the sexes appears to have been interpreted as strictly in first-century Palestine as the interpretation of shariah law is in some Muslim countries today.
Now, Joseph doesn’t deliver his betrothed into the hands of the village elders to execute summary judgement, or a lynch mob determined that they will protect his honour. Instead Joseph decides to end the engagement quietly – although it’s not certain that this would have resulted in a much better outcome for Mary and her child, assuming the child survived. All of which makes it a slightly “edgy” passage to hear on this day when we ask God’s blessing on Ilaria and Alessandro and share the celebration of their marriage last Monday.
But, as we were reminded last week, the edge is often the place where new things happen. It’s the place where we find ourselves drawn into new beginnings. It’s when he is at the end of his political tether, his capital surrounded by hostile armies, that King Ahaz hears the prophet’s promise of deliverance and a new beginning, a promise which Christians have interpreted, as Matthew does, in relation to the coming of Jesus. It’s when Joseph is at the end of his tether that he hears the angel’s promise of a new beginning – a beginning which includes not only him, but Mary and her unborn child as well. “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.”
“Do not be afraid.”
Those words, or something very like them, are said many times by God’s messengers in the Bible. I did a very quick count yesterday and found over 120, a fifth of them in the New Testament alone. Most of them are linked to promises that God will act. This one is different. “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” Those words, and the words that follow, tell us, first, that God has acted and, second, that God has acted through a human relationship of which Joseph is part. So that’s the first “take-away” from this gospel reading: Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid because God is faithful. God keeps faith with us, however often we human beings may break faith with God.
That’s the first take-away. The second take-way is this: God acts through our relationships. God acts through the way in which we treat other people, the way we treat one another. God acts through the love between husband and wife, between parent and child. The Holy Spirit – that “Holy Ghost” in whose honour this church building is dedicated – the Holy Spirit makes us pregnant with God’s possibilities. That great North African preacher and teacher St Augustine said, ‘What does it avail me that this birth [of Jesus] is always happening, if it does not happen in me? That it should happen in me is what matters.’
And the third take-away lies in the prophecy which we heard in our first reading and which Matthew quoted in today’s gospel. “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’” God is with us. That is the third, and the most important. In Jesus God has come alongside us, sharing human life from birth to burial, making it holy, making us holy, sharing our greatest joys and our deepest sorrows. We acknowledge his presence this morning to feed us with his own life and to bless us, to bless Ilaria and Alessandro as they begin this new stage in their relationship. At the Carol Service this evening we shall sing the praises of “Jesus our Emmanuel”. But the important thing is not simply to sing it, but to live it, to live in the awareness that Christ is present in every aspect of our life, not just for an hour in this building on a Sunday morning, but always and everywhere.
Advent 3 (11.12.2022)
We’re on the edge of something new and wonderful. “See, the Judge is standing at the doors!” says James. John asks ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Our Psalm this morning offers a message of hope – a hope that the Psalmist expects to be made a reality any time now. Stanley and Clinton are also on the edge of something new and wonderful. They are about, both of them, father and son together – both about to enter into that new life which is a foretaste on earth of the kingdom of heaven: the kingdom whose coming John the Baptist was sent to proclaim; the kingdom which was revealed in every word and action of Jesus.
In that kingdom “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Clinton and Stanley are about to become citizens of that kingdom through baptism. Both of them. Because it doesn’t matter how young or how old you are. You can be younger than Clinton, or older than his dad. I think that the oldest person I have baptised, so far, was in her sixties, certainly well over fifty.
But there is one snag: the kingdom Stanley and Clinton are about to enter is a kingdom under occupation – rather like the eastern provinces of Ukraine. But it isn’t occupied by ordinary soldiers. It’s occupied by the powers of greed, selfishness, pride, folly and fear. Those are the main reason why there are still suffering people who need justice, hungry people who need bread, prisoners who need to be set free, spiritually blind people who need their eyes opened, strangers who need someone to watch over them, orphans and widows who need to be upheld. So our job, as loyal citizens of God’s kingdom, is to be a kind of resistance movement, undermining the powers that hold people captive, living in the liberating love of Jesus our Lord, and sharing that love with the people we encounter.
That isn’t always easy. When everyone else defines who they are by what they have, or what they wear, or who they follow on social media, or what they do, it can be hard to define ourselves by what we are, flawed human beings who are infinitely loved by God.
Sometimes we have to be like a salmon, swimming upstream against the current, sometimes leaping over jagged rocks. Sometimes we have to be like John the Baptist, speaking truth to power even though we know what it will cost us, or like the women in Iran protesting against their rulers, and those courageous schoolchildren and their parents who are supporting them. That is part of what it means to belong to God’s resistance movement. That is part of what it means to prepare the Lord’s way before him.
But, as we said in the refrain to this morning’s Psalm, “The Lord shall reign for ever.” The Lord shall reign. God’s purposes of love cannot, in the end, be defeated. Whatever happens, they cannot be defeated. Jesus was crucified by the powers of this world. And God raised him. So we can be hopeful. Always. Whatever the world may throw at us. And we must be patient in the face of frustration, disappointment and suffering.
That sends us back to the Letter of James and its repeated encouragement to be patient. “The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.” We are called to be patient, and to be attentive to God – and to what God is doing in the world through us and through other people, the prophets for example. Be patient! And remember that if, as Woody Allen once claimed, “80% of success is showing up”, then 90% of faith is waiting on God, the Judge who is “standing at the doors”, as we study God’s word to us in Scripture, as we open our hearts and our minds to God’s presence in our prayer – even when we can’t sense that presence and prayer seems dry and unfulfilling.
But even then we’re on the edge of the kingdom. Even then we share in the Psalmist’s hope that “The Lord shall reign for ever” and that he comes among us as the one who brings healing and sight and life, liberation and justice and love. Let him reign in your hearts as he will one day reign over all the world, “your God, O Zion, throughout all generations. Alleluia.”
Advent 2 (4.12.2022)
When I was a boy sixty-something years ago, and cars were seen as something to be desired, and nobody knew the damage that petrol engines were doing to the earth, one of the oil companies ran a series of advertisements in newspapers and magazines and on billboards which showed the cartoon figure of a man who looked as if he had two heads. In fact, as the slogan underneath the drawing made clear, it was intended to represent a man turning his head very rapidly as a speeding car went past. The slogan was “That’s Shell… That was!”
At this time of year we have to be a little like that cartoon figure. We have to keep our gaze focused on past and future at the same time. On the past, as we look back to the birth of Jesus two thousand years ago, and on the future as we look to his return to bring in God’s kingdom of justice and peace in the fullness described so movingly in our first reading, with its picture of the fiercest animal predators and their prey living in harmony, “and a little child shall lead them”.
We have to keep our focus on past and future at the same time. In the way he introduces John the Baptist St Matthew is doing the same. He makes it very clear in the way he describes John’s clothing, that John is one of the prophets. He dresses like the great prophet Elijah, who also “wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist”. His message echoes the words of Isaiah about justice and judgement. But John doesn’t just look back to the great prophets of the past. He points to the One who is coming, the One who is “more powerful”, the One who will “baptize… with the Holy Spirit and fire.” He points to Jesus – and he points away from those who imagine that they, and they alone, have a hotline to God.
John didn’t mince his words, either. “When he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Now that is very strong language – and it’s used against some very powerful people. The Sadducees were the “Establishment” in Judaea. They ran Jerusalem. They did deals with the Roman governor. Most importantly, from a Jewish point of view, they ran the temple.
That was their hotline, They provided the chief priests, keeping power and authority within a fairly tight-knit circle of a few families. The Pharisees weren’t so focused on Jerusalem. They were a national movement, aiming at a holiness of life which didn’t necessarily depend on the temple. Their hotline was proper obedience to the Law of Moses. Their base was in the synagogues. They weren’t aristocrats, more what we might call “middle-class”, but some of them were very wealthy. Luke mentions in his Gospel that they were “lovers of money”, because they regarded earthly prosperity as a sign of God’s favour, a reward, if you like, for being good.
So it must have come as quite a shock when John called them a “brood of vipers”. It probably came as even more of a shock when he told them not to boast of being descendants of Abraham – which was one of the few things about which Pharisees and Sadducees agreed: that God’s blessings were limited to those who could say to themselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; and that all other peoples and nations and languages were to be despised, because they couldn’t make that claim.
But John tells them, No. “Even now”, he tells them” Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Religious nationalism is a form of idolatry. And it doesn’t matter whether the idolaters are Pharisees or Sadducees, American Evangelicals who use their faith as a cover for “white nationalism”, Panslavist Russian Orthodox cheering on the invasion of Ukraine, militant Hindus trashing the places holy to people of other faiths, or jihadi Muslims, destroying everything, and everyone, which does not accord with their interpretation of Islam. Religion can be a very good way of avoiding the demands of God and satisfying our own, under a show of holiness. As John the Baptist pointed out, that wasn’t good enough then. It isn’t good enough now. John’s call to repentance, to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”, is addressed to us as much as it was to them. It’s a challenge to look at our lives and reframe them so that in the centre is not “me”, not even “us”, but God.
Advent 1 (27.11.2022)
Advent begins today. It’s the start of a new year for the Church, marked by the switch from Luke’s Gospel’s to Matthew’s. It’s the official start of our preparations to celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas – and I do wish someone would tell that to the shops and supermarkets! It’s also, importantly, the season when we look forward to the end of history and the coming of God’s kingdom in its fullness.
In our two readings today St Paul sets the agenda for the way in which we keep these four weeks and Jesus sets the target on which we are to focus. People often think that Advent is a kind of shorter version of Lent – and to be fair there are points of similarity. What does St Paul tell us? Lay off the booze (So no “revelling and drunkenness”). Dial down the sex (or as he calls it “debauchery and licentiousness”). Be at peace with your neighbours (So no “quarrelling and jealousy”). Think about others and not just yourself (“Make no provision for the flesh”, is how he puts it).
It’s important, by the way, to remember that what St Paul calls “the flesh” isn’t simply, or even chiefly, about our bodies. It’s about our attitudes. I can exercise total control over my physical appetites, but if my life is guided by what I want, and if my needs and my fears are what rule my life, then I’m still living in “the flesh”, still living, like a sleep-walker, in a dream from which Christ’s coming will be a very rude awakening.
So, all of that is in some ways similar to Lent, but the mood is very different. In Lent we are looking towards Jesus’ suffering and death and acknowledging that our faults, our failures, are part of the huge chain of human sin with which his opponents shackled him and dragged him to the cross. In Advent we are looking towards Jesus’ coming – the word Advent comes from a Latin word, adventus, that means “coming” – and we are looking towards that coming not in fear and sorrow but in hope. We look forward in hope that Jesus will bring in God’s kingdom; that he will set right all that is wrong in this world; that he will rule in justice, love and peace.
Now, if we are to live in hope, we need to be clear about what is required of us. We need to cut back on, or even cut out, the things that dull our ability to see the world clearly – hence Paul’s advice about alcohol, sex and unselfishness in our dealings with others. And hence Jesus’ warning to stay alert as we await his coming at the end of history. “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” That means, among other things, avoiding two damaging ways of thinking and behaving into which Christians often fall.
The first of these is settling down to live wholly in this world, as if this world were all that there is, like the people who “in those days before the flood… were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage.” They lived “in the moment”, as we sometimes say, and in that moment when Noah and his family climbed aboard the ark the flood swept them all away. We aren’t all called to live in total detachment from the world, but we are called to live in the realisation that this world isn’t all that there is.
The second way of thinking is to imagine that Christian faith provides a personal escape pod from spaceship earth. They hear what Jesus has to say about those men and women working side by side and they imagine that the favoured person is the one who is taken. Some people call it “the rapture” and want to be part of it. In first century Palestine they wouldn’t have understood it like that. The one who was taken would have been taken by soldiers or slave-traders or kidnappers. Jesus isn’t talking about Captain Kirk saying “Beam me up, Scottie” in “Star Trek”. He’s talking about the schoolgirls abducted from Chibok nearly ten years ago, or the thousands of children and adults deported to Russia from the Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine during the past nine months. Whatever disasters come upon this world, Christians will be part of them, but we will be part of them as people who know that beyond disaster there is the promise of resurrection and that God’s last word to his creation is not death and destruction, but the newness of life revealed in his risen Son whose birthday we celebrate in four weeks’ time.
Christ the King (20.11.2022)
Most of the Church’s festivals, her special days, go back centuries. Most have their roots deep in the Gospels, celebrating the events around the birth and the death of Jesus our Lord, from Christmas to Candlemas and from Ash Wednesday to Pentecost. Others celebrate his companions, or those who, in the years after his death and resurrection, brought the good news of what God has done out into the world beyond first-century Palestine.
Today, though, we keep a festival that is less than a hundred years old. The feast of Christ the King was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925. In the beginning it was a feast of the Catholic Church, but it began to make its way into the calendar of other traditions, replacing the more down-beat “Sunday next before Advent” and ending the Church’s year with a bang, as congregations proclaimed the eternal reign of Christ, King of the Universe, with the Sundays between All Saints’ Day and today acting as a lead-in to today’s celebration.
So what do we expect? What did Pope Pius expect all those years ago when he ordained this new festival? What, as the taxi-driver asked the eminent philosopher, “what’s it all about?”
Let’s think for a moment about the timing. This new feast of Christ the King was set up in Rome, at the end of 1925. It was a difficult year for Italy. Mussolini’s Fascists had triumphed over a divided and squabbling opposition and were busy laying the foundations for a single-party, nationalist, totalitarian state. Pope Pius could see what was happening. He could also see that many of the clergy of the Catholic Church in Italy were being swept along on the tide of Fascist propaganda with its emphasis on masculinity, athleticism, aggression, and youth. He could not oppose the regime openly. Apart from anything else, he wanted to normalise relations between Church and state after half a century of suspicion and mutual hostility. But he was worried. How could he damp down the ultra-nationalist fervour that the Fascists were whipping up? How could he recall the clergy of Italy, and the people to whom they ministered, to the heart of their Christian faith without causing serious division in the Church?
The Feast of Christ the King was part of Pope Pius’s answer. It was a powerful reminder that states and regimes, however powerful they might appear to be, are all temporary, transient, provisional. It was a reminder, too, that political leaders are answerable to a higher power, that they are under God’s judgement – a judgement that God has given into the hands of his abused, abandoned, tortured, crucified Son.
So the Gospel for today is not about thrones and power and glory. Christ the King, who has been given authority over all the rulers of the world, was once those rulers’ victim. His only throne was a criminal’s cross, and the cross was, above all, “the slave’s punishment”. As St Luke reminds us in this morning’s Gospel, “The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’” In doing that they were following the example of the Jewish leaders, who “scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’” What use is a king with no power? They are asking. What right has he to claim that title, “King of the Jews”, which was scribbled on the charge sheet pinned to his cross?
But Jesus, in his suffering, and in his acceptance of that suffering, turns those questions back on those who condemned him. What right have they to torture, to destroy other human beings? What right have they to usurp the place of God, to deny God by their words and their actions? According to Luke, one of the criminals crucified with Jesus suddenly “gets it”, suddenly understands, even if only partially, the meaning of this man, dying alongside him: that there is a kingdom, a power, a glory, that is neither won nor maintained by violence. Last Sunday we remembered the cost in human lives of the quarrels and rivalries sustained by the kingdoms of this world. Today we are being reminded of the cost of peace and reconciliation, a cost that is not borne by the leaders, the soldiers, the criminals, but by the Son of God, who prays for the forgiveness of his executioners, and who makes peace by the blood of his cross. To him…
We have just received the texts of the sermons preached by The Revd Professor Robert Morley (Associate Chaplain of All Saints, Milan) during Canon Tony Dickinson’s absence in the UK at the end of the summer. You will find them by scrolling to 4.9.2022 and 11.9.2022.
2 before Advent (Remembrance Sunday) – 13.11.2022
At eleven o’clock there will be silence. Perhaps that is the only proper response to the enormity which we remember today. Young men (and women) slaughtered in their thousands, whole nations bled white, at Caporetto, or Verdun, or Tannenberg, on the Somme. Then, twenty years later, an even greater disaster. Twenty-six million dead in Russia alone; another twenty million in China; seven million in the German Reich; three million in Japan: and three and a half million from Britain and the Commonwealth – by far the largest number (about 2/3) coming from India.
Those are massive figures. Unimaginable numbers of dead. Each one of them someone’s parent, or partner, or child. So much grief and anger. So much desolation and loss. There are no words.
And yet something must be said. Something must be said because unless something is said there will be no remembering, there can be no remembering, once the survivors from the generation that fought have died – as those who came back from the First World War, the Great War, have already died. Something must be said because we owe it to their memory and to the memory of all who perished in conflict, whether on the Western Front or in the Warsaw ghetto, in the South Pacific or Salonika or Stalingrad. Something must be said: and it must be said as honestly and as fearlessly as we can – especially in a time when the demons of aggressive nationalism have returned to haunt Europe, Asia and the Americas.
In such a time those words of Jesus which we heard in this morning’s gospel take on a sharper relevance. The monuments we have built, like the peace and prosperity which we had come to take for granted before the pandemic, will not last for ever. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues…” In both the cities where I lived as a child and a young adult there is a memorial to the victims of war. In each case it is a bombed-out church, silent, blackened and roofless, as this church once was. St Luke’s in Liverpool, Holy Rood in Southampton. No doubt people admired the beautiful stones with which they were adorned.
And no doubt people admired the church of St Alban in Liverpool’s twin city, Cologne, which fulfils the same role. Unlike Great St Martin’s or Holy Apostles, which also suffered devastating wartime damage, “Old St Alban’s” was not restored to its former glory. A new building was erected for the worshipping community, but the old church was simply made safe, like Santa Maria in Passione here, to stand as a silent reminder of war’s destructiveness. At its heart there is a life-size copy of the sculpture “Grieving Parents”, which Käthe Kollwitz made in memory of her son Peter, barely past his eighteenth birthday when he was killed in the autumn of 1914.
Christians are called to bear witness to the possibility of peace: peace with God and peace among human beings; to testify, as the “war poets” of 1914-1918 did, to “the pity of war”. One of them, Wilfred Owen, lost his conventional pre-war faith while serving as an infantry officer amid the slaughter in Flanders, but in a letter home he expressed a deep awareness of Christ’s incarnation in the patient suffering of the soldiers under his command. “For 14 hours yesterday I was at work, teaching Christ to lift his cross by numbers, and how to adjust his crown; and not to imagine he thirst until after the last halt. I attended his Supper to see that there were no complaints; and inspected his feet that they should be worthy of the nails. I see to it that he is dumb, and stands at attention before his accusers. With a piece of silver I buy him every day, and with maps I make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha.”
In accepting the cross, accepting Golgotha, Jesus identified with the poor and the powerless, with those stranded, wounded and helpless, in no man’s land. He took upon himself the suffering of every age and bore it up into the Godhead. As we remember his death in this meal which he left to his friends, we re-affirm that it has power to give meaning and value to all those other deaths which we remember today. We affirm, too, that the God of compassion made human flesh and bone in Jesus is still to be found in no man’s land, between Russian and Ukrainian, Arab and Israeli, Christian and Muslim, and that his sacrifice is made for all.
3 before Advent (6.11.2022)
I’ve been thinking quite a lot about death recently. It’s that time of year. Ten days ago Archdeacon Joe Ajaefobi and I took part in the remembrance ceremony in Pegli, where we remembered local men, soldiers and sailors, and one Brit who died on the Italian front during the First World War. Last Wednesday morning I was one of the representatives of the British community in Genova at the city’s ceremony of remembrance amid the war graves at Staglieno – and then I had to hurry back here for our All Souls service, at which we remembered before God people who have been important in our lives, family members, friends, people alongside whom we have worked or worshipped. And next Sunday we’ll be revisiting some of those thoughts at our own Remembrance Sunday commemoration.
Both this morning’s readings fit quite neatly into that scheme of things. Job, crying out against God from the wreckage of his life, robbed of his children, his prosperity – even, if his three friends had their way, his sense of who he is. Jesus, countering the bleak vision of the Sadducees with an affirmation of the power and presence of God to both the dead and the living.
And both this morning’s readings challenge traditional or conventional views about God’s relationship with human beings, in life and in death. Job so far has experienced God as actively hostile, or else as an oppressive absence. Job’s three friends have insisted that his suffering must be due to some unacknowledged failure, some hidden serious sin. In their view it is Job’s failure to recognise that he has done wrong, somewhere, somehow, that has brought these great calamities upon him. They emphasise the distance, the alienation, between Job and God and they suggest a range of reasons to explain it. But Job rejects their words. He rejects their interpretation of the disasters that have overtaken him. He insists that he has lived with integrity and generosity. And he affirms, amazingly in the light of all that has gone before, that the God who has brought all this upon him is somehow “on [his] side”, whether in life or death. “And after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God.”
There’s a different conflict in our Gospel reading. It’s one of a series which the Gospels set in Jerusalem during the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. This time it’s the Sadducees, the wealthy families, hand in glove with the Roman occupiers, running the temple as their personal property, passing round the role of High Priest from one family to another, or competing to fill it. They were also intensely conservative in their interpretation of the Scriptures. They are, as Luke tells us, “those who say there is no resurrection”. The best human beings could hope for after death was a shadowy half-life in She’ol, the abode of the dead. They disapproved of such newfangled notions as resurrection. And they told Jesus the shaggy-dog story about the unfortunate woman who was married to seven brothers, one after another, in accordance with a provision in the law of Moses relating to childlessness in a society where keeping the family name in existence was hugely important – they told that story in order to make Jesus, and the idea of resurrection, look ridiculous by asking him to rule on which of the seven was her husband.
But, Jesus tells them, even to set the question in those terms is to misunderstand the nature of God. The life of the world to come, in which we affirm our belief every Sunday, is not simply a rerun of the life of this world. It is life in a new dimension, not lived in relation to the need to perpetuate the family name, but lived in the eternal presence of God, who is “God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive”. In some ways that’s quite shocking. How many times have we heard people say at funerals, “Well, Freda’s reunited with Arthur now”, or something like that? The words of Jesus seem to indicate that “it ain’t necessarily so.” However, they shouldn’t be seen as taking something away, as somehow denying a love which was sustaining and life-giving on earth. They should be understood rather as adding a whole new freedom. That much-married lady was seen by the Sadducees as the property of her seven husbands. Their concern was to decide which one had the right to her in eternity. Jesus is affirming that within the love of God she has an existence of her own, independent of those seven brothers; that she is alive in God and to God, as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were, and are: as each of us is, and will be.
All Souls’ Day (2.11.2022)
On Sunday we rejoiced in our fellowship with the people Daniel called “the holy ones of the Most High”, the people who, down the centuries have “walked in the light of the Lord” and shared that light with others – including us. Today we share our sorrow in the annual remembrance of those whom we have loved but see no longer; and for once we’re doing it in daylight, rather than in the shadows of a November evening. That might seem strange. Darkness and grief go naturally together. The great Anglo-Irish musician, John Dowland, a man whose motto was “semper Dowland, semper dolens” (always Dowland, always doleful), began and ended one of his finest and most melancholic songs with the words “In darkness let me dwell”.
There is something incongruous about grieving in bright sunshine. When my father died, nearly fifty years ago, one of the things I remember is the rail journey from Oxford to Southampton through the most glorious spring evening. It seemed a mockery of the rawness of my grief. I had just lost, suddenly and unexpectedly, one of the people I loved most, and creation was smiling.
But, on another level, nothing could have been more appropriate. It was the middle of Eastertide. It was the middle of the season when Christians celebrate that death is not the end; that sorrow and loss do not, despite John Dowland, last for always: that, as the Psalmist says, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” It was a reminder, had I been in a fit state to recognise it, that beyond the grave there is life, beyond our sorrow, there is joy, beyond the pain of parting there is the hope of reunion in God’s love.
So we light candles – and we light them from the Easter candle, as a reminder that sorrow and pain and death are not God’s last word to us, that Jesus, who bore all the weight of human hatred and spite and cruelty, who suffered the agony, the humiliation, of crucifixion – Jesus is alive and in him are alive all those whom we love but see no longer. As St John wrote: “the Son gives life to whomsoever he wishes.” He is not bound by our rules, our formulae, our careful grading systems. So there is hope. Even in the deepest sorrow, there is hope.
There is hope because, as the late Bishop David Jenkins once said, God is – and is as he is in Jesus. And Jesus, as St Paul reminded the Christians of Rome, is the one who “at the right time… died for the ungodly.” Not for the perfect. Not for the morally upright. Not for the pious and devout. “At the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.” And just in case they didn’t get that message the first time, Paul repeats: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Neither we, nor the people whose names will be read out and for whom we will light candles later in this service, are so far out that we cannot be brought within that reconciling, life-giving love. Nobody is beyond the reach of God’s compassion. Nobody is excluded from hearing the voice of the Son of God.
Even when we are in the depths of grief and anger, dwelling in spiritual and mental darkness, “wedded to our woes”, like John Dowland – even there God’s love reaches out to find us. Even there the voice of Jesus calls to us. Whether the grief that has brought us here today is still red and raw, or whether it has subsided into the nagging sense of loss and longing that serves as the occasional reminder of the wound of bereavement still lurking beneath the protective scar tissue, we offer it to God as we offer our memories of loved ones who are no longer in this life. As the names are read and we remember them, we pray for our own healing and peace.
We pray in particular that any memories of hurt and failure may be cleansed and healed by God’s boundless compassion, and that they may no longer trouble us. We pray, too, that Jesus the Good Shepherd may lead us through the valley of the shadow into God’s marvellous light. And we pray with the Psalmist that we, like those for whose sake we have come here today, may “dwell in the house of the Lord for ever”.
All Saints’ Sunday (30.10.2022)
On this All Saints’ Sunday, I’m reminded of a saying of that great 20th-century African saint, Desmond Tutu. He once said that he could not understand what Bible people were reading when they claimed that religion had nothing to do with politics. I sometimes wonder what Bible people are reading when they fall for the deceptions of the so-called “prosperity gospel”. Whatever it is, it must be a Bible that doesn’t include the words from St Luke’s Gospel that we have just heard.
We have just heard Jesus handing out blessings and woes. Who get the blessings? Is it the rich, the prosperous, the well-connected? No! Far from it! It’s those who are poor, those who are hungry, those who weep, those who are hated, excluded, reviled and slandered. So, what about the rich and the prosperous and the well-connected? Doesn’t Jesus have anything to say about them? Oh, he certainly does. They are the people to whom Jesus hands out woes – and woes in plenty. ‘Woe to you who are rich… Woe to you who are full… Woe to you who are laughing… Woe to you when all speak well of you…”
Both our readings today make it crystal-clear that the kingdom of heaven doesn’t belong to the mega-church pastor with his private plane. It isn’t the preserve of the rich and the powerful. It belongs to the ordinary Joes and Josephines who serve God faithfully, whatever it may cost them. Those mighty monarchs symbolised by the four great beasts of Daniel’s vision, four monsters emerging from the waters of chaos – they are overthrown and the kingdom is handed over to “the holy ones of the Most High”. They are the ones who shall “receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever—for ever and ever.”
But who are these “holy ones of the Most High”? How have they come to “be in that number when the saints go marching in”? Here’s how Jesus sets their agenda: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” And that’s just for starters. Listen to how he goes on: “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.”
The people who can do all those things are the people we celebrate today. They are the people we call saints, the people Daniel’s attendant spirit described as “the holy ones of the Most High”. They reflect God’s qualities of unconditional love and boundless compassion. “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” That’s what Jesus tells his hearers. Be generous. Be loving. Be open and accepting. To everyone. Not just the people who are “like us”. Not just the people who are good to us, the people who can do us a favour. To everyone. All the time.
“But”, some of you are probably thinking, “I can’t do that. No one can.” And you’re right in thinking that. No one can. Not in their own strength. But if we listen to Jesus, if we let his words dwell within us and we ponder them deeply, if we let God’s Holy Spirit “in all things direct and rule our hearts”, as an old prayer says, then a life of generous, loving acceptance becomes possible. That’s what the people whom we celebrate today discovered in their own lives, their own experience. They knew that they were blessed, not by an abundance of riches, but by the presence of the living God in their lives. They “walked in the light of the Lord” and they led others into that light.
Most of us can probably identify a person, or people, whom we have known, who “walked in the light of the Lord” and who have led us into that light. Now, just for a moment, let us sit in silence and remember those people, the ordinary people in whom we have seen God’s love, God’s generosity and acceptance reflected in a human life. And let us give thanks for the riches of Jesus’ blessing revealed in their lives, the lives of ordinary people called to do extraordinary things for God…
Blessed be God in the life of all his saints.
Trinity 18 (16.10.2022)
Fr Gilbert was dying. He knew it. The nuns whose guide and adviser he had been and among whom he had lived during these closing years of his life knew it. As he lay in the convent infirmary, suspended between life and death, they kept watch by his bedside, waiting for the end.
Then, suddenly, he began to try to say something – something he clearly felt was important. One of the watching sisters found a pencil and paper and wrote down his words. This is what he said:
“The Holy Spirit will never give you stuff on a plate – you’ve got to work for it.
“Your work is listening – taking the situation you’re in and holding it in courage, not being beaten down by it.
“Your work is standing – holding things without being deflected by your own desires or the desires of other people round you. Then things work out just through patience. How things alter we don’t know, but the situation alters.
“There must be dialogue in patience and charity – then something seems to turn up that wasn’t there before.
“We must take people as they are and where they are – not going too far ahead or too fast for them, but listening to their needs and supporting them in their following.
“The Holy Spirit brings things new and old out of the treasure.
“Intercessors bring the ‘deaf and dumb’ to Christ, that is their part.
“Seek for points of unity and stand on those rather than on principles.
“Have the patience that refuses to be pushed out; the patience that refuses to be disillusioned.
“There must be dialogue – or there will be no development.”
In those words, Gilbert Shaw summed up the teaching of Jesus which we heard in today’s Gospel. And he offered a reminder that the way of prayer isn’t easy.
Praying isn’t like putting your euros in the self-service machine, pressing the right buttons and waiting for the bottle, or the can, or the snack to drop into the tray. Very often it’s like Jacob, wrestling with the mysterious stranger, a long and painful struggle. There is no magic formula which ensures that God will do what you want. “The Holy Spirit will never give you stuff on a plate – you’ve got to work for it” – as the widow in the parable had to work on the unjust judge. But most of the struggle isn’t about getting God to do what we want. Our biggest problem is getting our wants lined up with God’s will for justice, for peace, for the healing of his creation.
That means, as Fr Gilbert saw, “taking the situation you’re in and holding it in courage, not being beaten down by it.” It means “holding things without being deflected by your own desires or the desires of other people round you.” It means patience, and listening, and seeking for points of unity. That can be a painful process. It can leave us physically and spiritually drained, limping like Jacob after his encounter at the ford of the Jabbok.
But, as Fr Gilbert also saw, “the situation alters… Something seems to turn up that wasn’t there before.” Jacob, the supplanter, the usurper, becomes Israel, the one who has “striven with God and with humans, and [has] prevailed.” The unjust judge changes his mind. Our wants become aligned with God’s will. We find, after all, “the patience that refuses to be pushed out; the patience that refuses to be disillusioned.” And through that patience we learn that God does always answer prayer – but not always in the way that we would wish God to answer. As another wise priest pointed out many years ago, “No” and “Not yet” are answers just as valid as “Yes”.
So let us take encouragement from our readings, and from that last homily which Fr Gilbert preached to the nuns from his deathbed. Let us persevere in prayer, in our wrestling with God, keeping open that dialogue, refusing to let God go until we, too, have received a blessing as “the Holy Spirit brings things new and old out of the treasure.”
Trinity 17 (9.10.2022)
It may not sound like it at first hearing, but the two readings we’ve just heard are very appropriate for our celebration of Fiona’s baptism. Yes, I know they are both about healing, and in particular the healing of people suffering from leprosy, but they have a lot to say to us about the power of God to bring new life out of the shadows – and if you had leprosy you were in a place of very deep shadows. For those who kept the Law of Moses, being a leper was a living death. You were ritually unclean. You were cast out of the community. You couldn’t join in the worship of God. You couldn’t enter any village or town. You couldn’t touch another person. And you had this slow-acting, degenerative, disfiguring disease.
It wasn’t quite the same for the Aramaean general Naaman. He wasn’t bound by the law of Moses, but he still had to keep his distance from others. And he still had the prospect of crippling disfigurement ahead of him. So when one of his wife’s servant girls, part of the booty from one of his raids into Israel – when she said ‘If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy’, then Naaman decided anything was better than his present state and he set off for Samaria with a letter from his king to the king of Israel. What happened when Naaman reached Samaria we heard a few moments ago. It all got a bit complicated, what with the politics, and Naaman’s pride, and the refusal of the prophet Elisha to play to the gallery. When Naaman and his escort arrived at Elisha’s house, he simply sent a message ‘Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.’
There’s our first point of contact with what is about to happen to Fiona. We aren’t going to dip her seven times in a river, but we are going to sprinkle her three times with what is sometimes called “the water of regeneration”. She will be washed clean spiritually, not physically, not even ritually. Naaman came out of the water of the river Jordan with “his flesh… restored like the flesh of a young boy”. More importantly, through Elisha’s intervention, through the power of God, he had got his life back! Once again he belonged fully to the company of the king of Aram’s servants.
Now when Fiona comes out of the water she won’t get her life back in quite the same way that Naaman did. But she will belong in a new way to the people of God. And that is the heart of what baptism is about. That won’t make much difference to her now. At three months all children want to do is sleep and eat – and get rid of the by-products from time to time. But that inner reality is there, and it’s our job, and especially it’s the job of Fiona’s parents and godparents, to make sure that she knows it’s there and that on this day, in this month, in this year of our Lord 2022, God said to her “You belong” and touched her life to begin the process of transforming her so that she can touch the life of others, as that young servant girl in Naaman’s household touched the life of her master and mistress, to bring a blessing.
So how do we do that? Well, that’s where today’s gospel reading comes in. Again, it’s an account of God’s power to heal and make whole, Again it focuses on people with leprosy. Ten of them this time and, judging by the way that St Luke tells the story, pretty ordinary Joes. Not top brass in anybody’s army. And they don’t even have to wash. They are made clean by the word of Jesus, ‘‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ That’s even more low-key than Elisha’s healing of Naaman. Not even “Do this, and then show yourselves.”
But in this story the punch-line isn’t the healing. It’s what happened afterwards, when the lepers realised that they had been made clean. Nine of them just carried on and did what Jesus had told them to do. But the tenth, the tenth… “when he saw that he was healed, [he] turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.” The most important thing that we can do for Fiona, is to teach her to thank God. To look at herself, to look at her life, at the end of each day and to say “thank you” to God for everything that has happened – not just for the good and happy things. And alongside that, to bring her to the weekly gathering of God’s people, the people who recognise that we have been touched and cleansed by God’s healing love, and turn to Jesus in thanksgiving. And to him, with the Father…
Harvest Thanksgiving (2.10.2022)
Harvest thanksgiving as we keep it today is mainly an English invention, dreamed up by a parson in Cornwall a hundred and eighty years ago. But, as we have heard just now, its roots go a great deal deeper than that. They reach down into the early history of Israel in those far-off days when “The Lord brought [his people] out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought [them] into… a land flowing with milk and honey.” In ancient times, and until quite recently, most peoples knew how important it was to “celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given.” But during the past century or so much of Europe has forgotten how precarious the gift of a good harvest is. Advances in agricultural technology had, until recently, made crop failure very much a thing of the past.
That is no longer true. Food prices are rising quite sharply. To take one example: a packet of supermarket pasta now costs me nearly one and a half times as much as it did when I first came to Genova four years ago. Those advances in agricultural technology, it is now clear, came with hidden costs, among them increasing damage to the earth we tread on, the water we drink and the air we breathe. In fact the impact of the way in which human beings have lived for the past two centuries is in danger of making life as we know it impossible. Land is being lost to drought, to flood-waters, to salt sea-water penetrating land that used to be fed by the fresh water of rivers like the Po. The seas are becoming warmer and more acid, so less able to sustain marine life – and that has an impact on all the communities which make a living from the harvest of the sea.
So when we thank God for harvest these days we are not, as it might have seemed even a few years ago, just going through the motions. We are recognising what a precious gift we have received from God and how fragile are the ecosystems through which that gift is made. The earth is not our possession to plunder. It is our home to be nurtured and cherished; not treated as a planet-sized land-fill site.
If we don’t cherish the earth. If we continue to plunder and trash it, then we shall experience – as indeed we are already experiencing – “a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders” like those mentioned in our first reading. What is more, we shall see movements of peoples desperate for food which will make the present tide of humanity trying to leave Russia to escape forced conscription into the war against Ukraine look very small indeed.
What we need to realise, then, is that our attitude to this earth has to be what I can only describe as a “spiritual” one, in other words an attitude that is formed not by greed, or profit, but by the creator Spirit of God. We need to act on that warning which Jesus gave to the crowds in today’s Gospel, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.” And the food that endures for eternal life is, in the end, “the bread of God… which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Not the manna in the wilderness, but the gift of God’s own Son who is life and hope and healing for all who trust in him.
The challenge to us, as we offer God our thanksgiving for the harvest of the earth, is to live with that simplicity, that respect for creation, which we find in the parables of Jesus, that recognition of what has been called “the greatness of the small”, in human lives as well as in the natural world. One of the Christian movements of half a century ago had as its slogan “Live simply, that others may simply live.” Those words apply with even more urgency now. And they apply universally. I think it was Mahatma Gandhi who said that “the world produces enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.” There is, as today’s Gospel reminds us, only one means though which all our hungers are satisfied, and that is our sharing in that true bread of heaven, Jesus the bread of life, who invites us to share that life in the bread of our Communion. “Whoever comes to [him] will never be hungry, and whoever believes in [him] will never be thirsty.’
Trinity 15 (25.9.2022)
The official period of mourning for Queen Elizabeth is over. Her body has been laid to rest in Windsor beside that of Prince Philip. The United Kingdom is returning to “business as usual” – and so is the Church of England. Here in Genova we have laid aside the purple of mourning for the green of “ordinary time”. It is to be hoped that King Charles and the other members of the royal family who have led so many of the public expressions of grief, will now be allowed some space for their personal sorrow.
But, despite all that, death, remembrance, and human responsibility before God are very much at the forefront of today’s readings. In our first reading we heard St Paul, or someone writing in his name, handing on to Timothy the fruits of his reflection, looking back over his life and ministry, and issuing a serious warning against those who make earthly prosperity the benchmark for blessedness. In our Gospel we heard Jesus warning the Pharisees about the dangers of wealth and in particular the moral blindness and numbness which it all too often causes, bringing death to the soul’s ability to feel compassion. The story of the rich man and Lazarus offers a vivid picture of menefreghismo. The rich man is doing very nicely, thank you: “dressed in purple and fine linen and [feasting] sumptuously every day”. He doesn’t care about the poor man, the senza dimora, who seeks shelter outside his door. He “longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table”, but he got more sympathy – and more practical help – from those other street-dwellers, the half-wild dogs who “would come and lick his sores”.
Now, the dreadful thing is that the rich man isn’t particularly wicked. We learn, as Jesus continues the story, that he is attached to his family. He doesn’t want his brothers to end up like him, in a place of torment, separated from God. But he still doesn’t care – and he still has that sense of what we sometimes call “entitlement”, that he has every right to ask Abraham to send Lazarus, first, “to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue”, or, when that possibility is ruled out, to warn his kinsfolk, “so that they will not also come into this place of torment”.
In a sense, chapter 6 of the first letter to Timothy is that message to the rich man’s brothers. It offers directions, a route to Abraham’s side at the heavenly banquet. And it offers warning after warning about the alternative way. There’s nothing wrong in itself with Christians being, or becoming, wealthy, BUT that wealth comes with a clearly spelled out health warning:
- “those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.”
- “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”
We might also want to add that riches are uncertain, and they can lead to “haughtiness”. Like “entitlement” that’s a variant of the pandemic virus pride, which is also “a root of all kinds evil”.
The way to heaven, on the other hand, is simple:
- “if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.”
- “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.” Many people have the idea that the Christian life is something negative, about saying “no” and building barriers. But there’s nothing negative in that list. All those qualities are tools to help us survive whatever life may throw at us.
- “[The wealthy] are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.” There are some who have realised that this is their responsibility. Sadly, there are others who don’t. They think that they have “earned” their wealth and they are entitled (that word again!) to keep it, by hook or by crook, and to use it for their own pleasure.
But for us – men and women of God – if they ever come your way be wary of riches. Handle them with care, because they will not buy your way into that realm of unapproachable light in which God dwells and into which he invites all his children.
Trinity 14 (18.9.2022)
Last week the British news media carried a number of reports about the people in the Royal Household in London who are likely to be made redundant because of changes in staffing now that Queen Elizabeth is dead and King Charles is no longer Prince of Wales. So, it’s quite strange to listen to today’s gospel reading and realise that it too is about a rich man’s servant losing his job – though in this case the reason for his being dismissed is at best incompetence and at worst corruption rather than a need to restructure because of a huge change at the heart of the organisation.
It’s a strange and difficult story, the parable of the dishonest manager, the “unjust steward” as he used to be known, and there have been many attempts to explain its meaning. Was Jesus really commending the actions of a crook? Well, it’s quite possible.
It’s possible because, in the view of some scholars, there are hints that those “debts” of oil and grain which the manager reduces so dramatically are actually a cover for loans at high rates of interest which were forbidden by the Jewish Law. So that the “dishonest manager” is actually doing the right thing, both by his master’s debtors and by his master, rescuing the debtors from the burden of their debt, and at the same time rescuing his master’s reputation – which might be why “his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly”.
Other scholars have suggested that this parable is based more generally on the unjust economic system which prevailed in Palestine in the time of Jesus just as it had eight centuries earlier in the time of the prophet Amos. In their view the actions of the rich man’s manager were a signal that he had abandoned the side of those who oppressed the rural poor and identified himself with the people he had previously been exploiting on behalf of his master (and, presumably, raking off his own percentage – which was why he had found himself in trouble). Whichever interpretation you choose, it is clear that this parable, like Amos’s prophecy, is lining up God alongside the poor and the oppressed, the “people of the land”, against the rich and powerful.
Amos saw clearly the ways in which poor people were oppressed by the wealthy because he was one of those poor. In one of the earlier prophecies in his collection he set out his credentials to the priest at the royal shrine in Bethel. He told him: ‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycomore trees [that’s a species of fig-tree, by the way, not a misprint], and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel”.’ Amos knew that “trickle-down economics” didn’t work then, just as they don’t work now. The rich became richer. The poor became poorer: “trampled”, says Amos, “brought to ruin”. As they are today.
Which might create some tension between our two readings and our marking the death of one of Europe’s richest women, and as we ask God’s blessing on her son as he takes over headship of what has been called “the firm”. However, unlike those who “make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practise deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals”, the British royal family has consistently used part of its great wealth for the benefit of those who are disadvantaged and marginalised – the Prince’s Trust being only one example. The daughter of one of my churchwardens in Slough thirty-five years ago, a woman of Afro-Caribbean heritage, worked closely with King Charles when he was Prince of Wales and she was a student at university in Cardiff. She has always spoken highly of his practical care and concern – and Dorothea is a good judge of character. And the crowds who have been queuing for hours along the banks of the Thames to pay their respects to Queen Elizabeth as she lies in state, bear witness to the way in which the Queen was able to make people from all walks of life feel that she was on their side.
So today, as the official period of mourning for Queen Elizabeth draws to a close, we give thanks for the Christian faith which guided her words and actions throughout her long life, and we pray that her son, King Charles, may continue so to use his personal wealth that he may be entrusted with the true riches by God who is the ruler of all the kings of the earth.
Trinity 13 (11.9.2022)
Our beloved monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, has died. This Sunday we are gathered together here to mark and mourn her passing. For the last 70 years Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor has been not just the sovereign of the British people, not just the head of the Commonwealth, and not just the Head of State of numerous nations. She has been a globally recognised figure, someone the whole world has known, and respected; almost, I would venture to say, a symbol of monarchy for the entire world.
Why, I wonder is that? Why would the world need a symbol of monarchy in the 21st century? The answer is two-fold: or rather, it could be expressed in two different ways. Firstly, Queen Elizabeth was loved and respected for her personal qualities: for her capacity for duty, devotion, and restraint. And secondly our late Queen is an outstanding example of a good, Christian monarch. Perhaps you will remember some of the historical books of the Old Testament: all those lists of monarchs – all kings, actually – whose reigns are summed up in one of two phrases: either ‘He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord’ or ‘He did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord’. Let it be said: Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor did what was right in the sight of the Lord’. And despite our loss, despite our sorry, let us be thankful for that, thankful for life, and thankful for her long reign.
It is customary at times of mourning – at funerals and memorial services – to share some personal memories of the deceased. And indeed I have to say that I twice found myself in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen. Most recently was at the turn of the millennium when, on a hot Saturday summer afternoon I was walking through Windsor Great Park. Indeed it was such a hot day that I had taken off my shirt and was trudging along in shorts and walking boots. Suddenly, a Daimler emerged on the Long Drive, the long, straight and rarely-used private road that runs between Ascot and Windsor Castle. At first I had a rather vague realisation that the Daimler was being driven by a woman, indeed a woman in a rather magnificent hat. Then, as the car slowed at a cattle grid, not 20 yards from me, I had the full realisation that the rather magnificent hat was being worn by the Queen, and Prince Philip was in the passenger seat. What was I to do? Should I go down on one knee – I couldn’t get my shirt on quick enough. Indeed I felt like Adam and Eve discovered naked in the Garden of Eden. Perhaps therein lies the seed of a sermon about the Sacredness of Monarchy.
My other memory of the Queen also involved clothing – though not, thankfully, the lack thereof.
The first time I saw Queen Elizabeth was when I was about seven years old and my mother took me to London to see the Queen. Or at least she took me to London for the very first time, and there was some state occasion in which the Queen flashed by in a horse-drawn carriage. This would have been in the mid-1960s. I can only remember two things about that day: the first is that it rained, and we stood for what seemed like forever in persistent drizzle. The second is that my mother had bought me a new coat for the occasion, and my new coat was getting soaked. I can still remember that coat very vividly: it was a splendid colour – a sort of light brown that was almost orange. Indeed a sort of teddy-bear brown, and the orange gave it a marmalade hue. I expect you can see where I am going with this… especially if I were to say that coming up from our home in Cornwall I had my first glimpse of Paddington station.
How delightful it was to watch the Queen take tea with Paddington Bear! How wonderful, indeed, was the whole pageant and partying of the Jubillee just a few months ago.
I am sure that all of you, like myself, have memories of this exemplary monarch stretching back to your earliest childhood, as well as others from just the other day. Queen Elizabeth has been part of the fabric of our lives, and suddenly she is with us no more. Let us give thanks to God for her life, her devoted service, and for her long, long reign.
Robert Morley (Associate Chaplain, All Saints, Milan)
Trinity 12 (4.9.2022)
Open our ears, O Lord, to hear your word and know your voice. Speak to our hearts and strengthen our wills, that we may serve you today and always. Amen
‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.’ This is not an easy message to hear.
‘Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.’ This is not an easy message to read.
‘None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.’ This is not a message that brings comfort.
What can I say to make this Gospel passage a more palatable read?
The first thing is to remind you of the context of these difficult sayings. Note the opening words here: ‘Now large crowds were travelling with him’. Jesus is not talking to his disciples, but to a large and enthusiastic crowd: no doubt they had been stirred up by his teaching, and perhaps they had witnessed a healing or two. This charismatic rabbi, the one who spoke with unusual authority, was on his way to Jerusalem, and they were expecting some fairly amazing outcomes when he got there. Was this the man who would restore Israel to its greatness, who would unseat the Roman invader? No wonder the crowd, in their enthusiasm, were eager to go with him. So Jesus’s primary objective at this particular moment, is to quell their enthusiasm. Do you think this is going to be a parade, a protest, or a picnic, our Lord asks them; No, it’s not: it’s going to be more like a funeral procession. Are you sure you have got the stomach for this?
And secondly, it is quite legitimate for Christ to ask the same question of us two thousand years later. What I require is total dedication, He reminds us. We must put our own attempt to follow Christ at the very centre of our lives, before all else, even and including our own families, our closest loved ones. ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself…’ Ah, that’s the word that trips us up: It’s that word hate, isn’t it? Well there’s some good news there too: the Aramaic word sanah, which the gospel writers translate into Greek as ‘hate’ – and remember that Jesus’s first language, and that of his audience, was Aramaic – means something slightly different: the Aramaic word means something closer to ‘turn away from’, or to ‘put to one side’. ‘Whoever comes to me and does NOT put their father and mother to one side, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even turn away from life itself…’ It’s still a hard ask, of course, but at least in these terms it isn’t quite so shocking, not quite so offensive.
The third difficult thing is Jesus’s often repeated command to carry our crosses. Clearly this is something that He often talked about throughout his ministry, and long before he came up against Pontius Pilate or the Sanhedrin: all four of the evangelists make mention of it, and on several occasions we see that the disciples were baffled by it; Peter even took issue with it, and was sworn at for his pains! ‘Get thee behind me, Satan.’ Yet what the random person in the crowd would have made of this talk of crosses, we can only guess at. Yes, we have some idea of what Jesus’s reference to the cross is all about, because we know the whole story. But when Jesus told his disciples, the crowds, and ourselves – his followers today – to pick up our crosses, what does he mean? For some of his closest disciples it would entail actual martyrdom: for Peter, and for James the brother of John, and for Paul, for instance. Or does He mean that we must embrace whatever suffering, whatever difficulty, whatever losses, life sends us with Stoical acceptance? But that is not it either: Jesus was no mere Stoic.
I do not want to talk glibly about the cross: life contains calamities and tragedies that take all words away; indeed, some of us may have been witness to such suffering. All that can be said is that with Our Lord’s carrying of His own cross – along the Via Crucis, and the appalling torture that was awaiting Him at Golgatha – He is with us in whatever suffering we may have to undergo. And that Our Lord’s crucifixion can never be disassociated from His resurrection; the events of Good Friday and those of Easter morning go together. That is the Christian hope.
But I would add to that one little word that St Luke gives us. Earlier in his Gospel, Luke ch.9, verse 23 if you want the reference, he reports Jesus as saying something very similar to his disciples: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’ Did you notice that little word? They are to take up their cross daily. A ‘daily cross’ suggests not a martyr’s death, nor insurmountable suffering, but rather “the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”. A daily cross suggests the gravel in the shoe of our daily walk: we are to bring our daily tribulations to God, to bear them as best we can.
To sum up: today’s Gospel passage is not an easy read. I have tried to make it more palatable by giving it a context: these are words spoken to a crowd that is brimming over with zeal, with religious and political enthusiasm. And our Lord is asking, have you thought about the cost of what – in this moment – you say you want, of what – in this moment – you say you are prepared to do. Part of that cost will be to turn away from your loved ones, part of that cost will be to carry a daily cross.
But perhaps the best news is this: for those in the crowd who reflect on these words, for those who then say no, actually I am not ready to follow this man Jesus to Jerusalem, I am not yet ready for discipleship, that’s quite alright. There is no penalty to pay. Christ will still be travelling on with his small band of disciples. He will still accomplish all that He is to accomplish. We will all still be the benefactor’s of his saving Passion. And for all that, let us give thanks to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Robert Morley (Associate Chaplain, All Saints, Milan)
Trinity 11 (28.8.2022)
The only way up is down. The only way to the heart of reality is to live on the edge.
That may sound crazy, but that is what Jesus is teaching us this morning, taking up the wisdom of our first reading from the Book of Proverbs and expanding it so that it becomes not just advice on how to behave in a particular social situation, but on how to live our life.
The only way up is down – especially if we are serious about growing in relationship with God rather than simply scratching a religious itch. It’s very different from the teaching of the world in which we live, where the message is “Onwards and upwards.” Take hold of whatever power or wealth there is around, whatever perks, prestige, and possessions may be going. Take them and use them. If you don’t have any, make the connections that enable you to get them. Get onto the ladder of opportunity and force your way to the top.
But, as the American monk Thomas Merton wisely asked many years ago, what happens when you get to the top and find that not only have you been climbing the wrong ladder, but that it’s leaning against the wrong wall?
Before I came to Genova, I spent nearly a quarter of a century in the company of St Francis of Assisi. Now, he had more than a head start in climbing the ladder. His father, Peter Bernardone, was one of the richest men in Assisi. Francis was the eldest son, destined to take the family business “onwards and upwards”. Beside that, he was popular; he was a gifted musician; he gave great parties. The world was at his feet. Life was beautiful – and he wanted to keep it that way. Francis would, quite literally, go far out of his way to avoid anything that reminded him that life had an ugly side; that not everyone was as rich, or as talented; that people’s lives were blighted by sickness or poverty or disfigurement. It was only when circumstances forced him to face that ugliness, to come close to the reality of poverty, suffering, and helplessness (which for him were focused in people who suffered from leprosy) – it was only then that his life began to change.
Francis himself wrote, toward the end of his life, “While I was in sin, it seemed very bitter to me to see lepers. And the Lord himself led me among them and I had mercy upon them. And when I left them, that which seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body…” Francis had discovered that the only way up is down.
Following that way wasn’t easy. Peter Bernardone’s business plan did not include his son opting out of the family firm. Nor could Peter’s sense of the respect that was due to him cope with what he saw as Francis’s increasingly strange behaviour. There was a series of fraught confrontations between them, which reached their climax in the court of the Bishop of Assisi where Francis decisively rejected his father’s life and the status, the wealth, the ambition that went with it. He didn’t so much reposition the ladder as leap off the ladder and send it crashing to the ground.
As a result, Francis found himself among the very poorest, with outsiders of all kinds: not only lepers, but homeless people, beggars, tramps and travellers. But with that there came the joy of discovering that the way down into their company was also the way up towards God. Francis had turned his back on the comfort zone so painstakingly built up by his father’s business career. He had indeed sat down at the lowest place – and such was the obvious joy that he found there that other people came to join him there, as they still do today – ask Archbishop Marco.
Francis found joy there, because Francis found God there. Not in wealth or status. Not in respect or popularity. He found God among those who were outcast, despised, helpless. He found God in the lowest place, among people who could not repay a favour – the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Francis found God, in other words, in the places where a success-driven world would least expect to find him. He broke free of the need for power, perks, prestige, and possessions which is the normal armour of what Thomas Merton called the false self. Living on the edge, Francis found himself at the heart of reality. He encourages us to look for that heart in Genoa today, to explore that way down – which is the surest way to God.
Trinity 10 (21.8.2022)
People of a certain age (and I am one of them) wince when they hear talk of “an English Sunday” – or, even worse, a Welsh or Scottish Sunday. We wince because “an English Sunday” was grim. It was a day on which anything fun or interesting was largely forbidden, by custom if not by law. You got up. You put on your most uncomfortable clothes, otherwise known as “Sunday best”. You went to Church. You came back home. You had Sunday lunch – usually the one bright spot in the day. After lunch, if the weather was fine, you might go out for a walk. Otherwise you stayed indoors and read “improving” books or listened to the radio. No messing around in the back yard. No going out to play with your friends along the road. The great fear was “What will the neighbours say?” It was like the Jewish Sabbath, but one day behind and without all the work-rounds that the rabbis had devised down the centuries.
Without the joy, too. Without the joy or the honour proper to either Saturday (if you’re Jewish) or Sunday (if you’re Christian). Jews keep the Sabbath to mark God’s completion of the work of creation, as a thankful reminder that all that God has made is very good. Christians keep Sunday because Sunday, the first day of the week, is the day when Jesus rose from the dead and opened up a new creation, a creation no longer bound by what St Paul called “the law of sin and of death”.
Both today’s readings bring us back to the Sabbath, and both of them remind us what it is about.
What it’s about for the prophet is giving honour to God, and taking time to delight in all that God has done, “not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs.” It’s about breaking out from the idea that work and business control human beings 24/7. Being part of the people of God (and this goes wider than the Sabbath) is about “laying aside the yoke” which fastens us tightly to our work. It’s also about not being critical or judgemental, giving up on “the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,” all the negative stuff we seem to find so easy – like those neighbours on the look-out for misbehaving children.
What we should be looking out for, the prophet tells us, is the opportunity to do good. “Offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted.” That message is reinforced by today’s gospel: both by what Jesus does to lay aside the yoke which had kept that unhappy woman bent double for nearly twenty years and by what he says when the leader of the synagogue gets up-tight about what Jesus has done and starts telling the congregation, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ He has set the rules on a pedestal, high above human need – and above God’s compassion. There’s another yoke here, perhaps, that needs to be laid aside.
So Jesus rebukes his opponents for their double standards. It’s all right to untie an ox or ass on the Sabbath, apparently, and lead it away to the water-trough, but not to release another human being from such a long and painful bondage as the woman had endured. As Americans say, “Go figure!” God’s liberating compassion doesn’t take one day off in seven. Neither should ours.
And it isn’t only physical ailments which bow people down. It isn’t only bodies which bring human beings into bondage. Sometimes in our intercessions we ask God to have mercy on those who are bowed down by grief, or guilt, or fear, as well as those others for whom our prayers have been asked who bear burdens of life-limiting physical pain. Some of them are people who, like the woman in today’s gospel, need the gentle touch of a hand as much as they do a word of power. Our hands, as Archdeacon David reminded us last month, are the hands which Christ uses to bring blessing to people now, just as our eyes are the eyes through which his compassion looks out onto God’s world today. That is not to say that we should all become “touchy-feely” – for some people that’s the last approach they need. But there are situations in which a hand laid lightly on the arm, or the shoulder, of someone who is going through difficult times can bring comfort, and a measure of healing, that we can hardly dare imagine. As a well-loved children’s hymn puts it, “Jesus’ hands were kind hands, doing good to all.”
Trinity 9 (14.9.2022)
As some of you may know, and as others know only too well, I have spent quite a lot of time during the past year or so working on the story of this church building since its consecration by Bishop Charles Harris 150 years ago, and on the story of the community which brought this building into being. That’s a story that goes back to the closing years of the Napoleonic Wars more than two hundred years ago.
It’s a fascinating story – and above all it’s a story about people. Heroes, villains, saints, sinners and all kinds of people in between. It starts with a maverick general. It ends with the pandemic – and the last words in the book are the prayer of a faithful pastor written, though he didn’t know it, on the eve of a global catastrophe. And all the way through it’s about people trying to be faithful servants of God and disciples of Jesus Christ. And all the way through it there are conflicts, arguments between people whose vision of where God is calling them is different from the vision of the people around them; between people who are happy to do things in the same way that they always have, and people who have a sense that God is nudging them, sometimes pushing them hard, in a different direction; between people who focus on tending their own patch of God’s garden, and people who keep their eyes on the bigger picture.
The conflicts come when one of those groups, or individuals, decide that the only possible way to follow Jesus is their way: that all of us have to focus on tending our patch of garden without worrying about all that is going on around us; or that all of us have to keep focused on the big picture at all times and ignore what is going on immediately under our noses. The truth is we need both. We did then. We do now. The Church needs the people who “know how to interpret the present time” and it needs those who remain faithful to what they were taught. What we don’t need is for one group to try to unchurch the other. One of the few things that has made me really sad when I was looking through our files from way back was to find one of my predecessors talking about some church members (not of this church, I’m glad to say) as if they were doing the work of Satan.
They may have been doing things that he didn’t like. They may not have been solidly behind everything he wanted to do, but that doesn’t mean they had, as they say in the Star Wars films, “gone over to the dark side”. And, in the end, that judgement belongs to God, and is delivered by Jesus, whether the fire he casts on the earth is a purifying fire or a consuming fire.
The other thing that struck me about the story of this church is how it is, in a way, a continuation of our first reading. As I was pursuing my research, I found myself, like the writer to the Hebrews, “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses”, women and men who looked “to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith”. They may not have “conquered kingdoms,… shut the mouths of lions,… [become] mighty in war,” or “put foreign armies to flight.” But there were certainly some among them who “administered justice, obtained promises,… quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness.” Women like Amelia Gretton, Augusta DelaRue, Nellie Rhode, Gill Medici, Wendy Catchpole, Ann Haigh, the anniversary of whose death falls today. Men like John Irvine, Montagu Brown, Alfred Strettell, Edward Bayly, Harold Swan, Alex McVicar, Peter Jones. I’m sure that those of you who’ve been in Genova longer than I have will want to add quite a few more names to that list, family members, friends, fellow-worshippers.
All of them are part of us, whether or not we knew them personally, and we are part of them. Unlike those heroes of Israel’s faith who were listed in our first reading, they did “receive what was promised”, God’s love made known in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus and shared with us in the bread of our Communion. But it is still true that God has “provided something better” so that they will not, without us, be made perfect. They may not have been saints, but they had set out on the road to glory, “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith”. They invite us to do the same, putting our lives in the hands of him “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God”.
The Transfiguration of Our Lord (7.8.2022)
Half a century or so ago three young men climbed a mountain. It wasn’t a very high mountain, maybe about the height of Monte Peralto, the hill where Forte Sperone and Forte Begato stand, but it stood out very prominently above the low-lying country beside the sea. Unlike Peter and John and James in today’s Gospel, they didn’t go up in order to pray. They went to explore the ruins they had seen from the road. But, like Peter and John and James, when they got to the top they had a life-transforming experience. They didn’t see Jesus shining with a dazzling inner light as Peter and the sons of Zebedee did. They didn’t hear a voice from heaven. They did see a world transformed in the later afternoon sunlight into a revelation of what the Psalmist calls “the presence of the Lord of the whole earth”. It was as if a gauze curtain had been drawn back, and they were looking at the world as God sees it, in all its wonderful, unspoiled radiance: hills, and farmland, and sea, and the high mountains beyond. Wherever they looked there was glory.
And we behaved just like Peter, burbling, and saying the first thing that came into our heads. In my case that was odd verses from Psalm 8. And we staggered, and danced, and literally jumped for joy – you can do that when you’re twenty-one! The moment of revelation didn’t last long. The sun was beginning to sink and we suddenly realised that we had to get back down the mountain before nightfall and catch the late bus back to the town where we were staying. It didn’t last long, but it has stayed with me for more than fifty years, as a vivid reminder of the reality of God’s presence if ever I am tempted to deny it.
That is what the Transfiguration is about. It’s a reminder of the reality of God’s presence in Christ, a moment of revelation enabling those who received it to remain steadfast in times of uncertainty, a foretaste of Easter before we set out on the way of the cross – which is why we hear it read each year on the Sunday before Lent begins.
In Luke’s Gospel this story comes less than half-way through, but it comes at an important point. About a week before, Peter had answered Jesus’ question, “But who do you say that I am?’, with the mind-blowing – and dangerous – reply, ‘The Messiah of God.’ As Luke tells the story, Jesus played that idea down. He talked about being “the Son of Man”, rather than “the Messiah”, the “human one” who represents God’s suffering people, rather than the great military leader who was going to drive the legions which were occupying Palestine into the sea. Instead, he warned that ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’ So what happened on the mountain was a foretaste of resurrection, of the divine presence shining dazzlingly through Jesus, and affirming Jesus in the voice from the cloud. ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’
That message isn’t just for Peter and the sons of Zebedee. That message is for us. It’s a reminder that our task as disciples of Jesus is to listen to him. Not to what others may say about him. Not “that man on the TV”. Not the “influencers”, the people on social media, Facebook or TikTok or Instagram or YouTube or Twitter – not to what they say about him. They are often selling what our first reading called “cleverly devised myths”, stories which put their power, not God’s love, at the centre of their teaching. Our task is to listen to Jesus as we read his word to us in Scripture, as we open our hearts and our minds to him in prayer and in our sharing in communion, and as we encounter him in the course of our daily lives.
My two friends and I weren’t expecting to encounter God up that mountain. We didn’t see ourselves as Peter, John and James – let alone Moses or Elijah, who also found God up a mountain. We weren’t expecting to find God, but God found us. God gave us that glimpse of glory, to enlighten and encourage us. As God gives a glimpse to each of us, if we can receive it. So let us follow that advice from our first reading, which tells us: “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” That morning star is Christ, our risen Lord.
Trinity 5 (17.7.2022)
Archdeacon David Waller ended his sermon last week with some words of that 16th-century human dynamo, Teresa of Avila. This week it seemed appropriate to begin with some different words from the same source.
In her book “The Interior Castle”, a guide to progress in prayer which Teresa wrote for her sisters towards the end of her life, Teresa writes these words: “Believe me, both Martha and Mary must unite in entertaining our Lord and must keep him ever as their guest, nor must they be so inhospitable as to offer him no food.” Now, I’m not sure I go fully along with the direction in which Teresa develops this idea, but in the words we’ve just heard she offers us an important insight into the relationship between the two sisters and their relationship with Jesus our Lord, an insight which may help us to make sense of today’s Gospel reading.
You probably know the traditional interpretation of the story we have just heard. Martha is the active, practical one, “distracted by her many tasks” St Luke tells us. Mary is the dreamy, prayerful one, “who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.” And, of course, when Martha gets fed up with having to prepare dinner for sixteen people all on her own, and asks Jesus to tell her sister to lend a hand, Jesus isn’t a great deal of help. ‘Martha, Martha,’ he tells her, ‘you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’ So obviously the dreamy, prayerful people like Mary are superior to the active, practical people like Martha.
Well, no. The “better part” that Mary has chosen is not to be prayerful and dreamy, but to be a disciple. She “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying”. That’s what disciples do. They don’t want to miss a word. They want to learn, to grow, to find wisdom. And they do that by being with their teacher, as Mary is here, absorbing the teacher’s wisdom and holiness, waiting for the life-changing word. And the sting in the tail of this story is that it is a woman doing this, a woman behaving like a male disciple. That’s what’s shocking.
It’s also why Martha is cross. Martha is fulfilling the role which is allotted to women by her culture and she ends up being “distracted by her many tasks”, pulled away from the chance of hearing her life-changing word, the one that up-ends her world forever and opens up a universe of new possibilities. So she’s stressed to death and she’s angry. She’s angry with Mary, certainly. She’s also, I think, pretty cross with Jesus. ‘Lord, do you not care…?’ is a question with quite an edge to it. Martha is doing what her culture expects of her: a bit like the women at lunch last Sunday who served their men-folk before they collected their own meal, perhaps? Martha is doing what her culture expects from her and getting no help from her sister and no thanks.
But that, Jesus tells her, isn’t what it’s about. This isn’t an “either/or” situation. It’s a “both-and”. As one of the songs from the Iona Community puts it, a bit jokily, “Christ it was who said to Martha ‘Listen first, then make the tea.’” Life is a matter of prayer and action, listening and doing. It’s not about making a choice between them. Obviously some people are more inclined to one than to the other. The great secret is to find the right balance for you, to get your inner Martha working with your inner Mary, as Teresa of Avila did. When she wrote that book about prayer from which I took the quotation with which we began, she was in her mid-sixties – a great age back in 1579. But she didn’t write it sitting in a comfortable armchair in a convent. She wrote it while she was on the road, travelling between convents which she had founded ten, twenty years before, to check that the nuns there were OK, sharing experiences, sorting out problems, offering advice and encouragement.
She could do all that Martha-like stuff because she spent time each day, sitting at the Lord’s feet like Mary, listening to him speak through the Scriptures, just being with him in prayer. So, she knew what she was talking about when she wrote those words with which we started. She knew, because she had lived it, that “both Martha and Mary must unite in entertaining our Lord and must keep him ever as their guest.”
Trinity 4 (10.7.2022)
Parable of Good Samaritan – one of the most popular in NT
We’ve probably heard many interpretations of it over the years
There’s the story – for example – of the group of keen young ordinands – men and women – in training in college – looking towards serving God as priests in the Church.
Well they were apparently one day invited to come to the lecture hall by a famous theologian who was visiting their college – to hear all about the parable of the Good Samaritan.
It was a real opportunity – not to be missed.
Unbeknown to them all, the speaker had ‘planted’ a friend dressed as a ‘tramp’ on the street in their path.
They all of course completely ignored him and rushed by in their keenness to hear the lecture!
Oh to have been a fly on the wall in that lecture theatre!
Then famously of course the parable was used by Margaret Thatcher – at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland back in 1988.
Her point – if I have it right – was that the Good Samaritan could only help because he had the wealth to do so!
You can imagine the feathers that she ruffled!
Of course, in reality the Good Samaritan could help simply because he was a person who could take action.
And that was Jesus point to the lawyer who posed the original question
‘But who is my neighbour’ the lawyer had asked.
Now the lawyer – it ought to be mentioned – would have already had a pretty well-formed answer himself.
It wasn´t that he didn’t know!
He’d have been taught such things at his mother’s knee, then at synagogue, and again when he was being trained in the Law of Moses.
He’d have chatted to his mates down the pub about it after work over a pint.
So here he’s taking part in that ancient practise of asking a well-known but disputed question of an up and coming rabbi.
‘let’s see what this chap says then’
And so of course, it’s all a bit – well – academic isn’t it
A bit detached from real life – a bit ‘objective’ rather than ‘subjective’ if you like.
In the way that the lawyer is asking – there are no real consequences in terms of action or love shown.
Jesus answer – by contrast – is about our ability to help being defined simply by the presence of need in another
Or in other words – where we see a need – there is our neighbour!
All about action and love then
All about ignoring presumptions.
It’s a rather uncomfortable criteria really isn’t it?
There is no real way of setting some sensible boundaries – as we might want to, or be tempted to.
We’re left with the thought – that we have as many neighbours as there are people alive
And that seems to be what Jesus is saying.
Well let’s look at the story from another point of view
Often useful with Bible stories – to try and put ourselves in the story itself.
Who are we in that story?
Which character fits us at the moment?
Or who might we be being called to imitate more often?
It can be a useful exercise.
Perhaps we are the priest or Levite?
A rather nice bit of status in society, a valuable job to do at the Temple in Jerusalem.
Much has been made by preachers – telling congregations how much they’ve passed by on the other side [pause] – I’m not too sure about always reminding people that they are sinners – I think often we know that anyway!
We’ve all done that at times I guess – all ‘passed by on the other side’
There has been the need of another presented to us – and we’ve found that we have a more pressing reason not to meet it.
But – just end up persuading people that they are no more than a guilty failure – I’m not sure that’s what a preacher should be aiming at!
It doesn’t sound like good news does it?
Don’t get me wrong here – guilt is not a bad thing to acknowledge once in a while – as it can be the prompt for us to take positive action as a result.
Its why we confess our sins at the beginning of this service each week.
It’s an attempt – through the liturgy – to set our lives on the right path, in the right direction before we hear God’s word and receive the sacrament of God’s love.
The important thing is not to let our guilt descend into shame.
You or I may have done a bad thing – but we’re not bad people
The good news is that ‘bad things’ can be forgiven – because God sees us as the good people he has created us to be.
So looking at the priest’s and Levite’s point of view – not so sure – let’s move on.
What about us being the Samaritan?
Well that’s a bit better.
Indeed, perhaps that’s nearer to the message of Jesus himself to the lawyer
Go and do like-wise – in other words – be like that Samaritan
That’s a good message for us
And we all know of ‘need’ in the world – some needs on our own doorsteps, and some ‘needs’ further afield in the suffering that faces people throughout our world.
Geography is no barrier to our response here!
If we are truly linked to each other – in one family, with God as our father
Then any who suffer should receive our love, attention, and any help we can give.
We are encouraged by Jesus to be the Good Samaritan.
One of the hidden characteristics if you like – of the Samaritan in the Gospel story – is his self-understanding given where he found himself.
Samaritans knew that the Jews didn’t as a rule approve of them very much.
People from Samaria worshipped God but did so in a different way – without paying too much attention to the Temple in Jerusalem.
So to be a Samaritan – on the road to Jericho – deep within Judea – well you knew that many people might not have given you the time of day.
If you’d been attacked by robbers and left half dead – almost certainly no one would have helped you.
But our Samaritan – doesn’t let that prevent him from doing the right thing – from showing love to a neighbour.
He’s ‘Good’ surely not just because he does something commendable, but because his character will not let him do anything else.
In other words it’s his inner life that makes him ‘Good’
And for any of us – the great thing is that being good in our inner lives can be learnt.
Through constant practise.
We become what we do – if that’s’ the path we choose to take.
It is a case of constantly asking ourselves what sort of person do I want to be?
And if I want to be someone who follows Christ and shows that in their lives,
Then let me not give into the hurtful expectations of others – because that’s not going to be me in the end!
But I wonder if we need to acknowledge another character in the parable as well
Often we can feel like the man attacked by robbers
We as individuals often feel in one way or another – ‘beaten up’ a bit
By our current circumstances, by the attitudes or words of others, or by the suffering we experience.
Just living through covid 19 has made us more uncertain of the goodness and continuity of life.
As we look at Ukraine at the moment – and the suffering and need of others in that dire situation.
Well we might be excused for feeling that circumstances are out of our control a little.
Or we might have suffered ourselves – and just need to know the care of others.
Considering the thought that we might be the man attacked and ‘left half dead’ – means we reflect on our own need for help – it’s a humbling experience
Not always an easy thing to do in a world where showing our vulnerability is seen in a negative light, as weakness to be avoided.
So perhaps we need to acknowledge that – yes, its right to strive to take on the role of the Good Samaritan
To be that person attentive to need in others
But at the same time – to know that – part of the beauty of being people created in God’s image is – is that it’s often out of our own knowledge of suffering that we can find the strength to be with someone else in theirs.
A prayer by St. Theresa of Avila
Christ has no body now but yours
No hands, no feet on earth but yours
Yours are the eyes through which He looks in compassion on this world
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
The Ven. David Waller, Archdeacon of Gibraltar
St Thomas (3.7.2022)
When I was a child I used to love condensed milk on my porridge as part of a winter breakfast. I wasn’t quite so keen on the “condensed soup” which was very heavily advertised about that time. And I’d never really thought about “condensed hymns” until I came across our opening hymn this morning.
It’s a “condensed hymn” because it fits everything that St John tells us about Thomas (across three chapters), and why he’s important for Christians, into three eight-line verses. It reminds us that he is much more than the “doubting Thomas” so often caricatured by people who boast of being unshakeably certainty about everything. It reminds us of the courage Thomas showed when Lazarus died and Jesus wanted to go back to Judea to comfort his family and, as it turned out, to do rather more than that. All the other disciples said, one way or another “Don’t do it. They’ll kill you.” Thomas said simply, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” He is one of those who, as the first verse of our opening hymn says, “dread, yet undismayed Dare face their terror.” And his courage shamed his fellow-disciples into following Jesus back into territory that was dangerous – and witnessing Jesus’ victory over death in the raising of Lazarus.
Our first hymn also reminded us of that moment at the Last Supper when Jesus was talking to the Twelve about his coming death would mean. When he talked about the “many dwelling-places” in the Father’s house and when he told them, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again 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.” – then, in my mind’s eye, I always have a picture of the disciples trying to look wise and nodding their heads in agreement – until, that is, Thomas says what none of the rest of them have dared to say: ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Again, Thomas shows himself to be one of those “Who long for guidance clear.” And again he opens the possibility of a deeper revelation of who Jesus is: not only “the way”, but also “the truth, and the life.”
Then, finally, we come to the moment described in this morning’s gospel: “Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with the others when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’” Actually it’s worse than that. The Greek phrase John uses doesn’t just mean “the other disciples told him”. It means that they kept on telling him. No wonder he wanted solid proof. Asking for that was probably the only way he could shut them all up and give himself space to grieve. Because Thomas is a realist. We’ve seen that in those other passages in which he appears. What matters for him is the here and now; however costly it may be; however much of a fool he may be making of himself. What matters is what is real. And what was real for Thomas in those days immediately after the crucifixion of Jesus was “that love lies dead On fate’s wheel broken”. Until, that is, he is confronted with ultimate reality: the reality that hatred and violence and death cannot have the last word; the ultimate reality that is God’s love, in Jesus, overpowering death. Now, that love still bears the scars, the wounds, inflicted by human hatred, human violence. God doesn’t make human cruelty disappear. He overcomes it.
That is why Jesus is worthy of worship as Lord and God. Not because he carelessly inflicts suffering, as some imagine. Not because he is safely above suffering, looking on from a distance, as some imagine. Jesus is worthy of worship as Lord and God because Jesus reveals God sharing human suffering, bearing the scars of suffering, soaking up the worst that one human being, or group of human beings, can do to another human being, or group of human beings. God is with us, not only in the wonderful birth that we commemorate six months from now, but in the daily suffering of the people in Lysychansk, pounded by Russian artillery, and of everyone who has lost their home to floodwater in Bangladesh or to earthquake in Afghanistan and Iran. Christ shows us his wounds in the broken bread of our Eucharist. He shows us their wounds too. And he invites us to trust, with Thomas, in a love that has power both to heal those wounds and to join together all who trust in that love in what our first reading described as “a holy temple in the Lord… a dwelling-place for God.”
Note: The “condensed hymn” referred to above is a lightly revised version of “Who dreads, yet undismayed” by Archbishop J.R. Darbyshire of Cape Town (1880-1948):
1 Who dread, yet undismayed Dare face their terror; Who err, yet having strayed Avow their error - Them let Saint Thomas guide, Who stirred his fellows' pride To move to death beside Their Lord and Master. 2 Who long for guidance clear When doubts assail them, Nor dare to move for fear Lest faith should fail them - For such let Christ's reply To his disciple's cry, 'I am the Way,' supply The light in darkness. 3 Who grieve that love lies dead On fate's wheel broken; And stand uncomforted By any token - Their faith shall be restored By Christ's compelling word When Thomas saw the Lord, And seeing worshipped.
Trinity 2 (26.6.2022)
It can be very easy, when we read Paul’s letters – and especially when we read passages like the one we heard just now [Galatians 5.1,13-25] to imagine that we understand what Paul means and that we can apply what he writes in another language, on another continent, in another age and a very different culture, to our situation here, now. Well, we can try, but we run the risk of getting things quite badly wrong.
Take this morning’s reading from the letter to the churches in Galatia, for example. It’s quite hard for some of us to grasp the force of St Paul’s words when he talks about freedom and slavery. For most of us freedom is the normal state of things. We take it for granted. In the world in which Paul lived, and in the communities to which he wrote, it was slavery that was taken for granted, along with other forms of servitude. Freedom was a prize to be won, or a gift to be given. It carried responsibilities as well as opportunities. He tells the Christians of Galatia: “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” In its setting, that’s quite shocking. Who in their right mind would give up their freedom to become a slave again?
Then there’s what Paul has to say about “the flesh”. When we read the word “flesh”, we probably think “bodies”: and when we think “bodies” our thoughts are most likely to focus on either “food” or “sex”. And when Paul launches his great list of “the works of the flesh” it doesn’t really help that the first item on the list is “fornication” – which is another word which doesn’t mean what we think it means. In Paul’s world, “fornication” doesn’t just mean “sex”; it means paid-for sex. It comes from a Latin word which means “oven” and was a slang word for a brothel, as Englishmen five centuries ago might have talked about “the stews”.
Now when we move beyond that first word on Paul’s list of “the works of the flesh”, we discover something very strange indeed. With one or two exceptions, they have very little to do with our bodies. They have to much more do with our thoughts and our words. Let’s just look at that list again. How does it continue?
When we get beyond that first word, this is what we find: “Impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” Well, maybe we can write off impurity and licentiousness, and indeed drunkenness and carousing, as sins of the body, though impurity and licentiousness have as much to do with our thoughts as they do with our actions. But the others, “idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy” – they all have to do with behaviour, and the attitudes of mind which give rise to that behaviour.
Idolatry: that’s setting up something, or someone, at the centre of our lives in place of God.
Sorcery: that’s trying to manipulate supernatural powers to control the people around us.
Enmities, strife and jealousy: they’re also about the way in which we relate to the people around us. Enmity and jealousy are the attitudes of mind which give rise to strife – and to “anger, quarrels, dissensions and factions”: they’re the attitudes which lead to people splitting into groups opposed to one another instead of “loving our neighbour as ourself.”
And finally envy: that’s the killer – sometimes quite literally. If you envy someone, you want to take away whatever they have that makes you envy them. Men who murder women are often driven by envy. They think “If I can’t have her, nobody shall!”
That “I” is the common factor linking all of these attitudes together. “The flesh” is St Paul’s shorthand for a life that is focused on my wants, my needs, my desires, putting my false self at the centre of everything instead of finding my true self in Christ. It’s shorthand for a rejection of any love except the love of that “false self”. And it is totally destructive. Our life is found together, and bound together, in the self-giving love of Christ Jesus. “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” They don’t need to feed that insatiable, greedy “I”, which wants to be “king (or queen) of the world” – or at least their little bit of it. Instead they are fed by the fruits of the Spirit, “love, joy, peace”, and learn to feed others through “patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”, building up the people of God.
Trinity 1 (19.6.2022)
Last Tuesday I was with many others at Santa Maria di Castello, taking part in the service of remembrance for the people who were killed at Pentecost in Nigeria. It was impressive. There were people from Nigeria, and from other parts of Africa. There were also people from Italy, from Romania, from Germany, and from Britain. There were Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, Pentecostals, and at least one Anglican. It was the Church as it should be, “gathered together” like the apostles at Pentecost, as Archbishop Marco reminded us in his homily; “one in Christ Jesus”, as St Paul wrote in that passage from his letter to the Galatians which we heard a few minutes ago.
“All of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Whatever our skin colour, our language, our culture, “in Christ Jesus [we] are all children of God.” On Tuesday night we were reminded of that in very painful circumstances, as we named, lit candles, and grieved for the fifty-plus people who had been mown down, as they gathered together to worship God, by men with automatic rifles.
Today we are reminded of our unity in Christ in much happier circumstances. We have gathered together to celebrate the baptism of Fumiko Anna Semini. Now I suppose there could be a better illustration of St Paul’s words to the troubled churches of Galatia, but off-hand I can’t think of one. Let’s hear those words of St Paul again: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Culture, language, status, gender – they are all relative. In the end, in the kingdom of heaven, they don’t matter a scrap. What matters is our status as children of God.
That will be important for Fumiko as she grows up with a heritage that is both Far Eastern and European, with one set of grandparents not far over the border in Switzerland and the other set half a world away in Tokyo. Rösti or sushi? Fujiyama or the Matterhorn? Where is she rooted? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that she will shortly be “clothed with Christ”.
What matters for us is that we, too, have been “clothed with Christ”. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” That is a message that Paul hammers home all the way through this letter. He hammers it home because those first Christians in Galatia, modern-day central Turkey – those Christians in Galatia had been pressured into wanting to be something that they were not. They had been told that they couldn’t be properly Christian without being Jewish, keeping the Law of Moses in every respect. And for Paul that was not what being a Christian was about. As he wrote in today’s first reading, “The law was our disciplinarian [the slave who took boys to school and kept them out of mischief] until Christ came… But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.”
That is the answer to who Fumiko is. It’s the answer to who each of us is. “[We] are all children of God through faith.” And that is vitally important in the world in which we live, a world in which politicians, news media, even, sadly, some Church leaders, are always looking for “wedge issues”, issues that will not bring people together, but drive them apart. A friend has just been forced into exile from the Democratic Republic of Congo where he ministers because people say “You can’t be a proper Congolese” if you belong to his tribe, whose ancestral territory straddles the border with Rwanda. In parts of the USA there are people who say “You can’t be a proper American” if your mother-tongue is Spanish. In this country there are people who say “You can’t be a proper Italian” if your skin is black – or if you come from the south. And in some churches – heaven help us, in churches! – there are people who say “You can’t belong here” if your skin is black or brown, or if you’re autistic, or gay, or you’ve been abused by the pastor.
People who think like that are making an idol of their tribe, their language, their race, their orientation, their pastor and such idolatry leads only to death and to the abyss from which that legion of demons in today’s gospel came. None of those things matter in the end. What matters is that we have been clothed with Christ, as Fumiko will in a very few minutes’ time. In that clothing we find who we truly are, “children of God through faith.”
Trinity Sunday (12.6.2022)
Today is the Sunday which many preachers dread. The Feast of the Holy and Undivided Trinity is the one day when they can’t rely on folksy stories and jokes – not even when the jokes are as sharp as one made by the English writer Alan Bennet in a scene from one of his plays, satirising a public school confirmation class. The headmaster asks the candidate if there’s anything he would like to go over and the boy replies “I’m still a bit hazy about the Trinity, sir.” “It’s perfectly simple,” says the head. “Three in one. One in three. Any further difficulties, see the Maths master.”
Christian teaching about the Trinity has been marked by conflict, even bloodshed. People have been put to death for giving the “wrong” answer about the relationship between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. If you go too far in one direction, you end up with what sounds suspiciously like three Gods. If you go too far the other way, you end up with one God, but a God who looks like a kind of quick-change artist in a TV sketch. First God appears as Father and Creator. Next God appears as suffering Son. Finally God turns up as Holy Spirit. That sarcastic African lawyer and fervent Christian Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus – Tertullian to you and me – once said about a supporter of that view that he “put the Paraclete to flight, and crucified the Father”.
The problem is twofold. First, that whatever we say about God is bound to be inadequate, one of the official creeds of the Western Church, acknowledges this when it talks about “the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible” and adds “And yet… there are not three incomprehensibles, but… one incomprehensible.” In other words we cannot tie God down by human thought or speech. God is infinitely greater than we imagine. God is also infinitely greater than we can imagine. But we have to try to say something. We have to try to say something to make sense of our experience of God – and we have to find ways of checking that our experience of God lines up with the experience of the Church as a whole.
That is where today’s first reading comes in. Those words from Paul’s letter to the first Christian communities in Rome reflect on our experience of God, an experience in which we encounter God in three ways. First of all “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” We encounter God in the historical Jesus, crucified and risen, Jesus, the one through whom “we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” But Jesus isn’t just a hope of future glory. Jesus is the one who has suffered. So our boast isn’t just about “our hope of sharing the glory of God.” Paul goes on to write, “we also boast in our sufferings”. We boast in our sufferings because God, who has suffered in Jesus, is with us in our sufferings, as God is with the people of Owo, with the wounded, with the bereaved, with the slaughtered. “We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” Hope does not disappoint us “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
This is Trinity, not as some abstract quasi-mathematical puzzle, but as ultimate reality, giving hope for the future, meaning to the past and courage to face the crises and challenges of the present, because we are rooted in God’s love, the love which brought the universe into being, and which “has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Our task, as Christians, is not to produce knockdown arguments “proving” that God is Trinity. Nor is it to know about all the ways in which Christians down the ages have tried to understand or explain the Trinity: St Patrick’s shamrock: St Augustine’s comparison with aspects of the human mind; William Langland’s hand and candle-flame. Our task is to enter into the life of the Trinity. That means opening ourselves in love and trust to the awareness of God’s presence whether in joy or in misery, whether in suffering or in glory. It means not becoming “stuck” with a slick formula, but allowing the Spirit to guide us into all the truth, taking what is Christ’s and declaring it to us, reminding us that “what is Christ’s” is also the Father’s, from start to finish, as God is our first beginning, our companion on the journey, and our final end.
Easter 7 (29.5.2022)
Among people who work in public relations there used to be – possibly still is – a saying: “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” On the basis of today’s first reading I don’t think that St Paul would agree with them.
To a modern European mind it’s a bit strange. The slave-girl who had a spirit of divination was giving Paul and Silas wonderful, free publicity. Every time she met them, she would cry out: ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ It’s perfectly true. What’s wrong with that?
Well, to begin with, there’s the source of her knowledge. We talked last week about the Holy Spirit. This slave-girl was possessed by what you might call an unholy spirit, a kind of supernatural tapeworm, a being like the demons, the unclean spirits who turn up in the Gospels and shout out that Jesus is “Son of God”. When that happens Jesus doesn’t sit back and enjoy the recognition. He does exactly what St Paul does here. He forbids them to speak and orders them to leave the bodies they inhabit. The truth of the good news, that “way of salvation”, is revealed by the way it is lived, not by publicity from a very doubtful source.
We see that in the second half of that reading, when Paul and Silas are in prison. They’ve been beaten with rods, they’ve been put in the innermost cell and had their feet fastened in the stocks. So what do they do? Where you or I might have used a few choice words about the standards of Roman justice, or called out the slave-owners and the magistrates for their antisemitism, Paul and Silas carry on with their routine of prayer and praise, “and the prisoners were listening to them.” Probably, I suspect, wondering who these strange men were, and why they were praising their God at a time when all sensible folk were asleep.
Anyway, as Archbishop William Temple once said, “When I pray coincidences happen. When I don’t, they don’t.” And Luke records a huge coincidence here – though actually, it’s not that huge. Philippi is in north Greece, an earthquake zone. In fact, there was an earth tremor there yesterday evening as I was writing this sermon, one of half a dozen that were reported from the area during the previous twenty-four hours. It wasn’t a very violent tremor, 1.3 on the Richter scale, which probably wouldn’t even rattle the tea-cups: but during its history Philippi has suffered some massive earthquakes, not least the one in the early seventh century of our era which destroyed what had been a thriving city and left the rather spectacular collection of ruins which is all that remains of Philippi today.
Once again, Paul and Silas do the unexpected thing. Even though “all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened”, so that they could easily have escaped, they stayed where they were – and somehow their example persuaded the other prisoners to do the same. And that proves to be the “way of salvation” for the gaoler and his household. Otherwise, as we heard, suicide was the least worst option facing him.
And that really brings us back to where we began. Paul and Silas “spoke the word of the Lord to [the gaoler] and to all who were in his house.” But what made him ready to listen was their behaviour. They could have done a runner – but they didn’t. They could have let him harm himself – but they didn’t. Indeed, Paul shouted out to stop him. It was his and Silas’s concern for others. It was their refusal to look for some sort of payback for the way they had been roughly handled by the crowd and the magistrates. That was what commended their message. It wasn’t a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination, a young woman abused by her owners in order to make money. It was the behaviour of Paul and Silas themselves in a tough situation, reflecting the integrity and the compassion of Christ, channelling the love in which Jesus is one with the Father, so that the world may believe and find that “way of salvation”.
Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed, Alleluia!
Ascension Day (26.5.2022)
On Ascension Day seven years ago I was in Westminster Abbey, attending the consecration of a colleague from Oxford Diocese as Bishop of Hertford. The preacher at that service was Rowan Williams, three years after his liberation from being Archbishop of Canterbury. Rowan reminded us of the various theological horrors and howlers and simple nonsenses that have been perpetrated by the writers of Ascension hymns, some of which give the clear impression that “Jesus has left the building” – or indeed the created universe. In fact the reality couldn’t be more different. One of Rowan’s great predecessors as Archbishop, William Temple, recognised that in his classic “Readings in St John’s Gospel”, when he wrote these words:
“In the days of [Christ’s] earthly ministry, only those could speak to him who came where he was. If he was in Galilee, men could not find him in Jerusalem; if he was in Jerusalem, men could not find him in Galilee. But his Ascension means that he is perfectly united with God; we are with him wherever we are present to God; and that is everywhere and always. Because he is ‘in heaven’ he is everywhere on earth; because he is ascended, he is here now.”
What is more, in his Ascension Jesus has, in the words of another great bishop, Christopher Wordsworth of Lincoln, “raised our human nature to the clouds at God’s right hand”. Jesus has revealed what God intends for each one of us… and not just at the end of time. That, I think, is part of the message of those two mysterious men in white who tell the disciples off for gawping into heaven. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
Their message is simple – and very different from what some Christians today seem to believe, as they try to detach themselves from this world, with all the horror of Mariupol and the other cities of eastern Ukraine, all the pain of the parents whose children were killed in the school shooting in Texas, all the unspeakable messiness of a climate crisis which those with the power to address it refuse to take seriously. The men in white are encouraging the disciples – and us – not to try to penetrate the mysteries of heaven, but to get stuck into present reality.
In this brief episode, St Luke is telling us first: that God’s mission in Jesus of Nazareth is over; and second: that God’s mission in Jesus through us – and through every community which acknowledges Jesus as Lord – God’s mission in Jesus through us continues. To pick up another thought from Rowan Williams’s sermon seven years ago: “We are the good news: and we are not the Good News.”
We are the good news to the extent that we are, like the first disciples, “witnesses to these things” and to the extent that we bear witness to the risen Christ by our love for one another, and for God, and by our service to the communities around us, especially to those in need. We are not the Good News, because the Good News is not us as we are, nor the church as it is, but that “everything written about [Jesus] in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled” – and has been fulfilled in his death and resurrection. So our invitation to the world is not “come to church and meet nice people like us”. It is “come to encounter Christ and be transformed by him” – in the awareness that the transformation is not and never can be our work but the fulfilment of the Father’s promise, the power of the Holy Spirit who catches us up into the universal flow of God’s love.
So the “handle” with which we grasp Ascension Day is not a return to a pre-scientific world-view of a three-decker universe, with heaven on top, earth in the middle and hell in the bargain basement. The handle with which we grasp this day and its celebrations is a renewed awareness that the risen, ascended Christ is sending upon us what the Father has promised; clothing us, as he clothed the first disciples, with power from on high, as we wait in the place where he has set us, expectantly, and prayerfully, for the fulfilment of God’s promise.
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” There’s a job to be done on earth. Get on and do it!
Easter 6 (22.5.2022)
We’re two Sundays away from Bishop David’s visit, our Patronal festival, and the beginning of a summer of celebration to mark the 150th anniversary of this building’s dedication. And this morning’s readings, and especially the gospel, remind us what that is about.
The words of Jesus focus the disciples on the coming gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift which we shall be celebrating in a fortnight’s time. Traditionally, Christians have talked about the “sevenfold gifts” of the Spirit. Jesus keeps it rather more simple. He tells the disciples, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” And those words really tell us all we need to know about the Holy Spirit.
First of all: Jesus talks about the Spirit as “the Advocate”, the one who is on our side, who speaks in our support. Like the avvocato (it’s the same word) who speaks up for people who are appearing before an immigration commission.
Second: the Spirit is sent, as Jesus has been sent, by the Father. If Jesus is the Word of God, the Spirit is the Breath of God; breathing life into what would otherwise be inanimate, soulless, dead: making us alive with the life of God.
Third: the Spirit comes in the name of Jesus and develops the teaching of Jesus. “The Holy Spirit… will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” Those aren’t quite the same thing. “Reminding us what Jesus said” provides the base from which we start. “Teaching us everything” takes us from there to where we need to be to face the challenges of the world in which we live today, a world very different from first-century Palestine.
These are the gifts that Blessing and Sarah will receive when they stand before Bishop David, two weeks today, and he lays hands on them and prays that God will confirm his servants with the Holy Spirit. They are the gifts on which Edwin will receive a down-payment at his baptism.
Now, these are free gifts. They don’t have to be earned. We don’t have to pass an exam, or complete a course. We “learn Christ”, to use St Paul’s expression, by doing his work, by following him, not by piling up lots of knowledge about him. The Spirit teaches us when we open our hearts in prayer and when we open our Bibles, but if we open our Bibles without opening our hearts we can get things badly wrong.
And that, I think is where Paul’s friend Lydia comes in. Lydia wasn’t a biblical scholar, she was a successful business-woman, being “a dealer in “purple cloth” was up-market, high-status work. But she may well have started life as a slave. “Lydia” was quite common as a slave’s name, it means “the Lydian girl – or woman”, and Thyateira, her home-town, was an important Lydian city, so there might be a very interesting personal history there. But what is important about Lydia is not her origins, nor her success in business. What is important about Lydia is that “the Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” The result was that she and her household became the first people in Europe to be baptised as Christians.
Lydia listened and the Lord opened her heart, as he opens our hearts if we listen to his promptings, as we open ourselves to the gift of the Spirit who is on our side, who breathes God’s life into us, and who teaches us the way to take as we set about following Jesus. As we pray for Blessing and Sarah, as we pray for young Edwin, as they prepare for baptism and confirmation in two weeks’ time, let us pray that we too may find our hearts opening more fully to listen to what God is saying; that we may find that peace which is not “as the world gives”. Above all, let us hear, and take to heart in these desperate times, those words of the Lord to the disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed, Alleluia!
Easter 5 (15.5.2022)
There are two short words in today’s gospel which are, if you think about them, probably the most frightening words in the Bible. They are the words “just” and “as” and they come towards the end of the reading. So what, you may be thinking, is so frightening about them? In themselves, nothing. In their setting, and in the way Jesus uses them, they are terrifying.
Let’s take the setting first. Those words are spoken in the upper room, at the last meal that Jesus was to share with his friends before his arrest and crucifixion. It is night. Judas has already left the party to meet the “snatch squad” from the temple. Those who remain are getting nervous. That is the setting into which Jesus speaks the words we heard in today’s gospel, words that prepare the way his final block of teaching, sometimes called “the farewell discourses”.
And these are his words: “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…”
Already in chapter 13 John has told us that Jesus “loved his own who were in the world [and] loved them to the end.” He will spell out very soon what that means when Jesus says, in chapter 15, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” That isn’t a figure of speech. Already in chapter 13 John has given us the acted parable where Jesus took the place of the lowest household servant and washed his disciples’ feet. Chapters 18 and 19 spell out, in detail after bruising detail, what that means in practice. Total self-giving in the face of betrayal, abandonment, insult and mockery – even torture and death.
“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Part of what that means we heard in today’s first reading. It means going a long way outside our comfort zone. It means opening ourselves to criticism from people who’d rather play safe. In first-century Palestine Jews didn’t eat with non-Jews. It was as simple as that. So what did Peter think he was doing when he went to the house not only of a non-Jew, but of someone who was an officer in the occupying Roman army? No wonder “the circumcised believers” criticised him. He had broken the rules. He had, as we say, let the side down.
But through that repeated vision of the sheet full of living creatures, Peter had come to realise that in God’s sight all human barriers are meaningless. There is no “clean and unclean”, no “holy and profane”. All life belongs to God. We are all made in God’s image. We are all the brothers and sisters for whom Christ died. It didn’t matter that there were huge barriers of status, race, and culture between Peter and the Roman officer who called him to Caesarea. The Holy Spirit told Peter to go with the men. The Holy Spirit came upon that whole household. What does that say to us about how we treat people who are different? Muslim neighbours? Eastern European or Latin American neighbours? Gay or lesbian or transgendered neighbours?
“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
There are no barriers to love. There are no limits to love. When we block love, when we refuse love, when we deny love, we are hindering God who is love. Love is, ultimately, desiring the other person’s good – whoever “the other” may be. It is being prepared to break down barriers, to move out of our comfort zone. It is laying down, if need be, one’s life for one’s friends. That is the lesson that Simon Peter learned in the house of the Roman officer in Caesarea. It is the lesson that we are called to learn, and to share with the people around us.
That is when we discover that those words, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another,” are, after all, not so terrifying. They are not so terrifying because, when it comes down to it, we are in the hands of the God whose splendour is above earth and heaven. They are not so terrifying because, in laying down his life for his friends, Jesus has entered that splendour and opened the way to that splendour for all who dare to follow him.
Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed, Alleluia!
Owing to the chaplain’s continuing self-isolation, these words were read, and the service again led, by our estimable churchwardens.
Easter 4 (8.5.2022)
We have heard two messages of hope today. First there’s the raising of Tabitha, bringing back to life a loved and valued member of the little Christian community in Joppa. Then there’s the promise of Jesus in today’s Gospel: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
As I was thinking about those two stories earlier this week, I thought about another story, one that has been part of my life since I was a student half a century ago. It’s the story of someone who was, like Tabitha, to all appearances a very ordinary person. I doubt if anyone would have known about Tabitha’s skill with a needle and thread if they hadn’t seen her at work in her sewing-room. I don’t suppose anyone would have known about the young woman I was thinking of if she hadn’t, like Tabitha, gone to the very brink of death – and been brought back.
It was in the English city of Norwich on this very day six and a half centuries ago. The plague that people called “The Black Death” was doing the rounds again, twenty-five years after it had first arrived from mainland Europe. Our young woman was very sick. She thought she was dying. So did her family. They couldn’t send for the apostle Peter, but they did send for the parish priest, who prepared her for death and left a crucifix propped up so that she could draw comfort from it in her dying moments. But she didn’t die. As she watched and waited for death to come, the figure of Christ on the crucifix started to change in appearance. Then it spoke to her. And through that night and into the next day she received a series of fifteen visions that she called “showings”, in which the crucified Jesus spoke to her, teaching her and answering her questions. Sharing the wonder of his love for her, for the whole of creation, which appeared to her as a tiny thing, no bigger than a hazelnut, and so fragile that she thought that it must crumble into nothing. But it didn’t, and as she wondered why it didn’t the thought came into her mind: “It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.”
Again we hear echoes of the words of Jesus in today’s gospel: “What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.” There is so much hope in those words! Hope for our world; hope for all people; hope for ourselves. And heaven knows that we, like that young woman in Norwich, need hope in a world clouded by pandemic, by impending climate disaster, by more or less constant warfare in so many places. We need to reflect on those words of Jesus: “What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.” No one can snatch us out of the Father’s hand. Remember those words from our opening hymn:
“Now is eternal life, If risen with Christ we stand, In him to life reborn, And holden in his hand.”
Eternal life doesn’t depend on believing or not believing particular statements about God. It’s about taking our stand with Jesus, living our life in his love, knowing that we are “holden (held) in his hand”. That’s what eternal life is. And it’s life that we can enter now. It isn’t “pie in the sky when you die”. It is a new quality of life which we receive from Jesus now, as our young woman in Norwich received it from Jesus nearly 650 years ago. Like Tabitha, she came back miraculously from the brink, but that isn’t what matters. What matters is that she came back with a new understanding of the depth and breadth and height of God’s love revealed in the crucified Christ who is with us until the end of time, and who told her “It gives me great happiness and joy and, indeed, eternal delight ever to have suffered for you.” What matters is that she realised that she, like us, like that tiny, fragile sphere like a hazelnut, which is everything that there is, is held eternally, in the wounded hand of the risen Christ.
Owing to the chaplain’s illness, these words were read, and the service led, by our estimable churchwardens.
Easter 3 (1.5.2022)
Many of the scholars who have commented on the final section of today’s reading from St John’s Gospel have had fun with the three-fold affirmation which the risen Christ extracts from deeply embarrassed and ashamed Peter, hurt because “Jesus said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” However, I have a sneaking feeling that they are missing the point in focusing on a three-fold affirmation beside the lakeside barbecue, wiping out Peter’s three-fold denial beside that other charcoal fire in the High Priest’s courtyard. There is more to this than meets the English, or even the Nigerian, eye.
At the supper that he shared with his disciples on the night of his arrest, Jesus, so John tells us, talked a lot about love. Now, there are four Greek words for which the English translation is “love”. There’s ερως (eros), the word for sexual attraction, the word from which we get the English word “erotic”. There’s φιλια (philia), which is the word for friendship. There’s στοργη (storghé), which is the word for the natural affection between parents and children, love within the family. And there’s αγαπη (agapé), which is the word for the deep, self-giving, creative love which is the nature of God. That’s the word which Jesus uses when he talks to his disciples about his love for them, about God’s love for them, and about the love they are to have for one another. Αγαπη is the word that the risen Christ uses when he asks Peter, the first time, and the second time, “Do you love me?” In other words, “Is your love for me as strong and deep as mine is for you?” And Peter flunks it. When he answers that question, he doesn’t talk in terms of αγαπη. He talks in terms of φιλια, “friendship”. So what he is saying is “I’m your friend.” There isn’t the same depth and strength of relationship. And what hurts Peter is that when Christ asks him the third question, he doesn’t use αγαπη any more. He follows Peter and switches to φιλια. It’s as if the risen Lord has twice asked Peter “Do you love me THIS much?” and Peter has answered twice, “Yes, I love you this much.” And then the Lord asks Peter “Really, Simon? Do you even love me this much?” That’s what hurt.
But the curious thing is that this mismatch doesn’t affect Peter’s role in the new community, the community renewed by the resurrection of Jesus. Peter may indeed not love Jesus THIS much, but the risen Christ’s love for him remains unbroken. Peter may not love Jesus THIS much, but he still has a role to play, and that role is twofold: to care for the flock that the risen Christ entrusts to him, and to follow; to follow even though following will lead Peter into difficult and dangerous places, where he will “stretch out [his] hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around [him] and take [him] where [he] does not wish to go”.
Now, those words, about taking Peter where he doesn’t wish to go, bring us back to the beginning of today’s Gospel, when Peter declares “I am going fishing” – as if he is trying to turn the clock back to what was normal before he met Jesus, almost, it seems, to live as if Jesus had never existed. But both of today’s readings remind us that for those who have encountered the risen Christ nothing is back to normal. Instead normality has acquired a new dimension, in which relationships of power and authority are turned on their head, in which failure and suffering and death do not have the last word, in which, as we heard in our first reading, those who go in search of God’s people to bind them and bring them to judgement are themselves taken captive, caught in the net of God’s love.
However hard we may try to live as if Jesus had never existed, we cannot avoid that encounter with the risen Christ. That encounter may not take place in a flash of blinding light. It may not knock us off our feet, as it did Saul on his way to Damascus. It may be more like that encounter with the stranger who hails us when we’re tired and fed up and makes some crazy suggestion about doing things differently. However he comes to us, wherever he comes to us, he summons each one of us to follow him, wherever that following may take us – and not to be too worried if we can only say, with Peter, “Lord, I love you this much”. That’s OK, because Jesus loves us THIS much.
Alleluia. Christ is risen! Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Easter 2 (24.4.2022)
‘Peace be with you,’ says Jesus to the disciples. They are his first words to them after he has been raised from death. ‘Peace be with you,’ he says again a week later when he comes to reassure Thomas that the reports of his rising are not a deluded fantasy but flesh-and-blood reality. ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.’ He’s quoting Thomas’s own words back at him, offering him the opportunity to do the very things that Thomas said were an absolute “must” before he would believe the reality of Jesus’ resurrection.
‘Peace be with you,’ are words that many people in this world would love to hear. People in Ukraine; people in this city, refugee women and young people wondering how their husbands, sons, fathers, brothers and other menfolk are faring as they resist Russian aggression; people in Russia desperate for news of their sons and husbands, mired in a conflict they were told would be a victory parade from day one as Ukrainians welcomed them as liberators. And what about the people caught up in those other conflicts which the fighting around Mariupol and in the Donbass region has pushed out of the news headlines, conflicts in the Middle East, in Africa, in Central and South Asia? Some of them have waited years, and others decades, for a word of peace, a word which still hasn’t come. What has Christian belief about the resurrection to say to them? Where is that peace which Jesus promises?
That peace, I think, is in the place where Thomas tries to locate it. That peace is to be found in the wounds of the crucified Jesus. God doesn’t make our suffering, or anyone else’s, go away. Instead he bears it with us, and for us. The wounds are real. Our God is in it with us. The cross is so much more than a mechanism for tidying away my personal sins. The resurrection is so much more than a “happy ending”. God enters human suffering – all human suffering – so that human beings – all human beings – can enter God’s glory. ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.’
Which is why those celebrating Easter today in Moscow are so wrong when they offer uncritical support for the Russian military, when they bless their “special military operation” in Ukraine as somehow a sacred task of reunification, rather than recognise it as a violent act of aggression against a peaceful neighbour. They are placing themselves on the side of those who inflict suffering and who repress those who speak uncomfortable truth to power. They have lined up with the high priest, not with Peter and the apostles who declare, ‘We must obey God rather than any human authority’. With every attack on civilian targets, schools, hospitals, railway stations, residential areas, with every deportation, every rape, every execution-style killing, the Russian armed forces, and those who ordered them into battle, are crucifying the Son of God afresh. ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.’
But they cannot win. Not even if they succeed in snuffing out Ukraine’s independence. Not even if they provoke a wider war which results in nuclear devastation. They cannot win. God is in it with us (and by “us” I mean the whole of suffering humanity). The risen Christ is in it with us, speaking peace to all people; offering them life as he stretches out his wounded hands, as he shows his wounded side. As Peter told the high priest and those who were with him “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour… We are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”
“We are witnesses to these things.” We are witnesses to the Christ who speaks peace to all people. We are witnesses to the Christ who bears the agony of the world in his body on the cross and transforms it by his resurrection. We are witnesses: not in our own strength, but by the power of the Holy Ghost to whose glory this church was dedicated, nearly 150 years ago, “the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” Through that witness we have life in Christ’s name. Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Easter Day (17.4.2022)
It sometimes seems as though Christians treat the resurrection of Jesus as if it were the “happy ever after” ending of a fairy-tale, or a family-oriented film from Disney. Which makes things difficult when the world around is clearly not in “happy ever after” mode and when death, rather than new life in Christ, is monopolising the air-waves, as it has been for the past fifty days in relation to the war in Ukraine – and for a great deal longer when we factor in what has been, and is still, going on in Syria, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Mali, Chad, the DRC, Cameroun… Not to mention the pandemic, which hasn’t gone away – or the climate crisis, which is deepening daily.
The list of grim situations seems endless: and those who believe in a God who sets everything right for his faithful people find themselves facing some difficult questions both at the global level: Why doesn’t God stop the war? Why doesn’t God get rid of corrupt governments? Why are good people suffering? And at the personal level: Why have I caught Covid for a second time, even though I have been fully vaccinated? Why did my granny die?
What does the resurrection of Jesus have to do with such perplexing questions?
As we listen to St Luke’s account of Jesus’ resurrection we realise that it doesn’t provide easy answers to any of the problems which the world faced then, and which it faces now. The women didn’t find answers at the tomb. They found more questions. Who had moved the stone? Where was Jesus’ body? Who were those “two men in dazzling clothes” who suddenly “stood beside them”? And those two men also had questions: ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead?’ No wonder the women were perplexed. No wonder, too, that the male leadership (such as it was) of the group around Jesus thought that the women’s account of what had happened was an “idle tale” and refused to believe it.
There are no easy answers. There is only the promise of an encounter.
There are no easy answers, either, in what St Paul writes to the first Christian communities in Rome. He, too, writes about suffering and death and slavery. But he also writes about the liberating encounter with Christ, crucified and risen, which takes place at our baptism. That doesn’t sort out our lives for us. But it gives them hope, and meaning, and a direction. Even when we are baffled: even when we are overwhelmed by the horrors facing the world in which we live: even when we are as perplexed as “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them” who went to the tomb early on the first day of the week; or as amazed as Peter after his visit to check their story, the truth which Paul sets out in what he says about baptism still applies. Death has to come before resurrection, but “death no longer has dominion over us.”
Death no longer has dominion. Desmond Tutu, in the course of a life spent at the receiving end of the apartheid regime in South Africa, expressed the same thought in these words:
“Goodness is stronger than evil. Love is stronger than hate. Light is stronger than darkness. Life is stronger than death. Victory is ours through Him who loves us.”
In other words, however grim, however terrifying, however agonising our situation may be, death and violence and hatred cannot have the last word. To say that is not to deny the reality of the desperate situations which I listed earlier. It is to affirm that God, in Christ, has plunged fully into the reality of human life from the womb to the tomb. That means taking on the depths of human suffering, and of human cruelty, and entering the shadow of death alongside us. But Christ has not been overcome by the shadow, or the suffering, or the cruelty. Instead he has overcome. The good news of Jesus Christ, whose risen body still bears the marks of torture and death, is not “an idle tale” but a living reality, which does not exempt us from human suffering but gives to that suffering meaning and value in the sight of God.
Maundy Thursday (14.4.2022)
In recent years there has been something of a fashion for Christians to try to recreate, either on Maundy Thursday or on another evening in Holy Week, a Passover Seder. There are a number of problems with that. First, it’s a pretty gross act of what is sometimes called “cultural appropriation”, when one group of people takes something which belongs to another group of people, and claims it as its own. Second, it assumes that the last meal which Jesus shared with those closest to him was a Passover meal – and John, part of whose account of the Last Supper we have just heard, is quite definite that it wasn’t. In his Gospel Jesus is crucified at the very hour when the Passover lamb is sacrificed. And third, nobody actually knows what a first-century Passover Seder was like. There are no descriptions of a Seder before those in the Mishnah, the rabbis’ commentary on the Law, which dates from the beginning of the third century of our era. It seems to have been just too painful, after the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, to write down an account of a ritual in which the holy place had played such an important part.
So we are left with St Paul as our primary witness to what happened, and, although he was writing before the destruction of the Temple, he was writing for people who lived in a very different setting. A “holy city” Corinth was not! Certainly not in any sense that someone who had trained as a rabbi would recognise. So Paul kept things simple. He didn’t explain all the Jewish background. That would probably have been very confusing to the mainly gentile congregation in Corinth. Instead, Paul simply focused on the actions which have long been recognised as giving the Lord’s Supper, the Mass, the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, its shape. “The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed” took bread. He gave thanks. He broke it. And then, as Paul implies, but doesn’t spell out, he shared it with the disciples, as he shared the cup, “the cup of the new covenant in [his] blood”.
Now, Paul sets out this account of the “Lord’s Supper” in order to counter some bad behaviour among members of the congregation in Corinth. Instead of taking their cue from Jesus, who, as we heard in this evening’s Gospel, turned the social hierarchy upside down by taking the place of the humblest servant, the Corinthians had been using the meal to reinforce the social order which they found in the communities around them. The rich members paid for the meal. They probably provided the venue. Well and good. But then they arrived early and helped themselves to the best of the food and wine on offer, so that when the members who were workers, or even slaves, arrived after finishing their work for the day, there was nothing left for them. So some went hungry, while others got drunk, and what should have been a celebration of the church’s unity became instead a scandalous demonstration of its deep social divisions.
But a church which simply reflects the structure of the society in which it is set is failing to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Let’s hear again some of his words from this evening’s Gospel: “You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” To follow the example of Christ is to take the lowest place, to put oneself at the disposal of all – that is what it means to love one another just as Christ has loved us. The love which is Jesus’ “new commandment” to those who follow him has very little to do with “warm fuzzies.” It has to do, rather, with putting first the interests of others, taking a lower place in the pecking order – irrespective of our own position in the social hierarchy. It is in this way that we, as the body of Christ, glorify God. It is in this way that God is glorified in us.
Palm Sunday (10.4.2022)
Most people have, if we’re honest, a picture of God which belongs in a fairy story: someone who will magic away all our problems, make us rich and successful, and see to it that everything ends “happily ever after”. I’m not sure how that picture can survive the story we have heard this morning. In Luke’s account of the suffering and death of Jesus we heard how he was betrayed, abandoned, denied, abused (verbally and physically), tortured, mocked and killed. We heard how the people closest to him bickered and boasted, how they ignored instructions, fell asleep, tried to meet violence with violence. This is no fairy story. This is life as it is brought to us on the news bulletins and on social media. Parts of it are, if we are honest, our life.
And the message of the story we have heard this morning is not that God will make everything nasty go away. The message we have heard this morning is that God is in it with us: in the mess; in the brutality and casual cruelty; in the suffering and slaughter of innocent people; in the abuse and the violence, the mockery and the murder. God suffers as every victim suffers, as we suffer.
And God never stops loving us. God never stops working for our good, even when, as somebody once said, the right hand of the body of Christ is busy hammering nails into his left hand without realising what it is doing. As the execution squad hammered nails into both his hands, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive.” As the criminal crucified beside him defended him from mockery, Jesus assured him “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” He didn’t come down from the cross. He didn’t save those who were crucified with him. He endured. He was, as St Paul wrote to the Church in Philippi, “obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” He is in it with us. God is in it with us, in the triumphs, in the tragedy, in the pain and in the sometimes bad-taste comedy that is human life.
Lent 5 (3.4.2022)
There are not that many stories about Jesus which his first followers thought were so important that they appear in all four Gospels – not until you get to the last days of his life, at any rate. His baptism in the Jordan is one. The mass picnic for five thousand men, plus women and children, is another. And then there’s this, the story we have just heard.
All four gospels tell how Jesus was anointed by a woman. Luke places it much earlier in his Gospel and uses the episode to make a particular point about acceptance and forgiveness. Matthew and Mark set it after Jesus has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, during the days when he is commuting into the city from Bethany. John also sets it in Bethany, but before Jesus enters Jerusalem. John, too, is making a point – but his is about Jesus entering the royal city as its anointed king. And there are a number of other differences in the way he tells what happened.
First: John is the only writer who gives the woman a name, and a possible motive. He tells us that it was Mary the sister of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead only a few days before. Was the outpouring of the ointment Mary’s extravagant gesture of gratitude for the return of her brother? Very possibly.
Second: unlike the unnamed woman in Mark’s Gospel, and in Matthew’s, who pours her precious ointment over Jesus’ head, Mary pours it over his feet, as the woman in Luke’s gospel had done. And she dries Jesus’ feet with her hair, as the woman in Luke’s gospel had done. There is, though, absolutely no evidence that Mary was a notorious sinner like the woman in Luke’s gospel. And please don’t go confusing this Mary, from Bethany just outside Jerusalem, with that other Mary, from Magdala in Galilee.
Third: where Matthew and Mark describe anger among all the disciples at the colossal “waste”, as they saw it, of this precious ointment, whose fragrance filled the whole house, John says that only Judas was angry – and he takes the opportunity to remind us that Judas will betray Jesus.
But amid these differences there is one striking similarity. The unnamed woman in Mark and Matthew, pouring the ointment over Jesus’ head, looks very much as though she is anointing him king – just as prophets had done to the kings of Israel centuries before. Remember Samuel and David? Or Nathan and Solomon? Or the unnamed prophet who was sent by Elisha to anoint Jehu? Was this woman’s action the signal that the hour had come to get rid of the hated Romans and re-establish the kingdom of Israel? No. In both the other gospels Jesus uses almost exactly the same words that he uses here about Mary. ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’ Jesus is not thinking about a crown. He’s thinking about his coming crucifixion. Just as he is in Mark’s gospel and in Matthew’s.
Now, for John, Jesus is a king, but John knows that the kingdom of God is not about having large armies and powerful weapons at your disposal. It’s not about status and prestige. St Paul also realised that when he wrote the words that we heard a few minutes ago to the church in Philippi. He lists all the things that would give him status in Jewish communities around the Mediterranean and across the Middle East. And what does he say about them? Just this:
“Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
All those other things that Paul lists were great for boosting his ego, for putting himself at the centre of his world. But to do that was to cut himself off from reality. And reality is revealed as the suffering, infinitely self-giving love that we see in the death of Jesus our anointed King, the love that takes us as we are, with all our faults and failings – even the things we’re most proud of – the love that soaks up all the vileness and pettiness of which we are capable, the love that takes us, and heals us, and transforms us, slowly and painfully, into his likeness.
Mothering Sunday (27.3.2022)
When we say that something is like “motherhood and apple pie”, we normally mean that it is generally thought to be a good thing and, usually, unthreatening. You wouldn’t guess that from either of our readings on this Mothering Sunday morning. Both of them are about the pain of motherhood: not the physical pain of giving birth, which is tough enough, but the continuing cost which a mother has to pay, the emotional and spiritual cost of loving this human being who was part of her for the first nine months of their existence.
Moses’ mother has to hand her three-month-old baby over to whatever fate may bring. Mary, going with Joseph to the temple to make the routine offering after the birth of her first-born son, is brought up short by the prophecy of Simeon. ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ Imagine hearing those words six weeks after you have given birth and are just getting back into the swing of normal life. So today’s about a bit more than a box of chocolates or a bunch of flowers, a sentimental greeting card and “I love you, mum”, whether in person or on a Zoom call.
In fact, underneath the surface, the whole of today’s celebration is shot through with sadness and separation. In times past when the children of poor country families in England, boys and girls, reached their early teens, their parents would give them up, as Moses’ parents gave him up, to someone better able to care for them. They may not have left them in a watertight basket in the reed-beds by the Nile, but they did put them up at the autumn hiring fair in the nearest town, in the hope that they would be taken on by a wealthy household, either to work on the land, or as domestic servants. Mothering Sunday was the day on which those children were allowed their first visit home, to spend a few hours with the family they hadn’t seen for six months.
They would walk from the town, or the big house, where they worked back to their home village, and on their way they would pick a posy of wild flowers from the roadside as a present for their mother. Which is why, on this Sunday, many churches give posies to the women in the congregation. Then, in the afternoon, they would set out on the journey back to their employer, making sure that they had enough time to get there before nightfall.
So, it wasn’t an easy day for them then. It isn’t an easy day for many people now. An old friend of mine lost his mother a few days ago. She died peacefully, full of years and faith, with her children at her bedside, but today is still going to be difficult for him and the rest of his family. Today is a day to pray for them, and for any family where parents and children are separated. It’s a day to remember the grown-up families in Ukraine, whose mothers have been put on the trains or buses carrying refugees to safety, while their children have stayed to fight the invading army. A day to remember, too, the mothers in Russia whose sons have been conscripted and sent to fight in an unjust war, mothers whose government has lied to them about the whereabouts and the safety of their children. And to remember the mothers in Nigeria whose children have been abducted from school or university and who cannot raise the ransom money for their return.
Today we hold all of them before God, as we hold in God’s love our own mothers, whether living or departed: giving thanks for the care we received from them; saying “sorry” for the ways in which we hurt them; forgiving them for the things in which they failed us. And we give thanks to God for Jesus, who is, as Julian of Norwich recognised 600 years ago, our true mother, nurturing us in faith, surrounding us with love, and feeding us, as our earthly mothers did, with the life-giving food that comes from his own flesh and blood. As Julian wrote, “The mother can give her child to suck of her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and does, most courteously and most tenderly, with the blessed sacrament, which is the precious food of true life.”
Lent 3 (20.3.2022)
First-century Jerusalem was a violent place, particularly when there were tensions between the people who lived there, or worshipped there, and the Roman army of occupation. It was also a place where fatal accidents happened, like the tower collapse mentioned by Jesus in that passage from Luke’s Gospel which we have just heard. People wanted to make sense of such random tragedies, and some people decided that they must be some kind of divine punishment for the victims. It’s an attitude of mind which still survives – not least in Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, to judge by his sermon at the beginning of Lent and his later defence of what he had said.
But as Jesus points out: it won’t do. He asks the people who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices: ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?’ And he answers his own question, and the follow-up question about the tower of Siloam, very bluntly: “No, I tell you”. Random suffering of this kind is not a punishment for sin. Stuff happens. Why do some people make it across the Sahara and others don’t? Why do some people make it from Libya to Lampedusa and others don’t? Why have some people in Kyiv, or Kharkiv or Mariupol survived Russian shells and missiles while others haven’t? The same answer applies. It wasn’t because the ones who didn’t make it were great sinners.
So why then does Jesus go on to warn the people listening to him that “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did”? That looks remarkably like a u-turn, but I’m not sure that it is. There’s a problem, you see, with that word “repent”. It’s a word we understand in a sense that is very different from the meaning it had for Jesus and his hearers. For us repentance is entirely to do with wrong-doing. We see it almost as the spiritual equivalent of a guilty plea in a law-court. We repent of our sins. But when John the Baptist and then Jesus come preaching repentance, sin barely gets a look in. Repentance is linked with believing and forgiveness and good news.
The English word “repent” is used to translate a Greek word “metanoia”. That word consists of two parts. The “meta” bit has to do with change. The “noia” is linked with words that have to do with thinking, mindset, world-view. So to call on people to repent is not so much to call them to admit their guilt as it is to invite them to change the way they look at things, to change, not their mind, but their mind-set. Suffering is not about rewards and punishments. Carry on thinking like that, says Jesus, and you will perish, but inwardly. If you don’t change your mindset from one based on rewards and punishments, you will die the spiritual death of those who believe that faith is a closed system and that God is not a loving Father, but a capricious tyrant who sets traps for human beings in order to send as many of them as possible to hell.
Such a God is a very long way from the picture of God that we find in today’s first reading. There we heard of God’s overflowing generosity: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price…. Eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” Not very appropriate words, you might think, for this season of fasting, but it makes the point that it’s our own choices that are starving us. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?”
Now, if we have repented, if our mindset is not that of those who understand the highs and lows of human life in terms of reward and punishment, then we can see any testing situation that overtakes us as something that is part of our human existence. What matters is how we treat it. What matters is whether we fall back into thinking about suffering as punishment sent by God, or whether we accept it as part of a necessary pruning which enables us, unlike the fig tree in Jesus’s parable, to bear for God the fruit of a transformed life. So, in these weeks of Lent, let us respond to the prophet’s invitation; “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near,” confident that the Lord is rich in mercy and will abundantly pardon.
Lent 2 (13.3.2022)
On the table in the porch there is a pile of magazines. They’re there to be read and shared by members of the congregation. They’re sent to me from England, in theory every week, and in theory they arrive about a week after publication. In practice, since the middle of last year, they’ve been arriving in batches of two or three, and mostly about a month after publication – sometimes longer. I’m still waiting for the issue that came out on 8th January.
Now, some of you are probably thinking, “Why doesn’t he just cancel his subscription?”: and there are times when I come close to doing that. But every so often, an issue arrives which makes putting up with the inconsistency and the delays worthwhile. Like this most recent one, from the middle of last month. It focuses on Africa. There’s an article about the campaign against Female Genital Mutilation – and the featured article is by a Nigerian bishop, writing about the relationship between Christian faith and politics. He has the interesting theory that one of the reasons why African politics is so messy and corrupt, not least in his own country, is that the Churches, and particularly the Catholic Church, have concentrated on training people to serve – and to serve in obvious areas like education and medicine, in religious orders, in the ordained ministry. They have never taught people that entering political life is a form of servant leadership, and one for which a politician requires as much training as a doctor or a teacher if he or she isn’t going to make a mess of things.
That’s quite a hot topic at the moment, not least because President Putin has made a public display of his Church membership – and yet his plan for the invasion of Ukraine includes the bombardment of civilian areas, the bombing of hospitals, and the threat to use nuclear weapons to destroy the planet if the NATO alliance intervenes on the side of the Ukrainian government. All of those actions are contrary to Church teaching but Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, President Putin’s Church, has not disowned them, although a growing number of ordinary priests in that Church have bravely spoken out in protest.
But surely, the Church should have nothing to do with politics? Didn’t Jesus say that his kingdom was not of this world? Well, that’s certainly what St John tells us, but saying that the kingdom of God is different from the kingdoms of this world does not mean that the Church has nothing to say about the realm of politics and that we can leave politicians to get on with it. Both our readings this morning come from the intersection of Christian faith and political reality. St Paul was writing to a Christian community whose centre was the Roman colony of Philippi, a very privileged community in many ways: made rich by the near-by gold mines and the city’s strategic position on the main road from the East into Italy: politically privileged, too, because the city had been refounded, about a hundred years before St Paul wrote his letter, as a settlement for discharged Roman soldiers at the end of the civil wars. Those soldiers, and their descendants, were Roman citizens, which gave them rights and privileges of which most of the people of northern Greece could only dream. So when St Paul tells the Christian community there, “our citizenship is in heaven”, he is reminding all its members, the Romans and the others, that they have a calling, a privilege and a responsibility which can’t be measured in status and tax exemptions.
Our Gospel reading, too, shows Jesus caught up in the politics of first-century Palestine. Herod, the Romans’ puppet king, wants to kill him. Perhaps he’s heard rumours that Jesus has been hailed as the Messiah, God’s anointed ruler, and so a rival. The Pharisees, defenders of Jewish purity and “difference”, want Jesus out of town. They can’t have been pleased by Jesus’ telling the crowds that “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God” – and those who pride themselves on their religious connections and credentials will be thrown out. In his answer Jesus claims a place alongside the prophets, the men and women of Israel who spoke uncomfortable truth to power in the name of God in their day, just as those brave Russian priests have spoken uncomfortable truth to power in the name of God in our day, and as Jesus God’s living Truth, crucified on a political charge, speaks uncomfortable truth to the powers of this world eternally.
Lent 1 (6.3.2022)
Confession time: I do not like the word “temptation”. For a white Englishman of my age it suggests something that is “naughty but nice”, and probably fattening, like chocolate, or ice cream – or possibly sex. None of which have anything to do with the three tests, or trials, that Jesus undergoes in the wilderness. One of them is about food, certainly, but the other two are about power and presentation.
It would be very easy this morning to focus on the second of these three tests, and maybe the third, and to point an accusing finger. It would be easy, but it would be misguided, because the focus of today’s Gospel isn’t Vladimir Putin, or Joe Biden, or Boris Johnson, or even Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The focus is Jesus, newly baptised by John, then “led by the Spirit in the wilderness” – the same Spirit which had come upon him at his baptism: the Spirit by which, Luke tells us, Jesus was filled.
Now, if we were wondering, “Why the wilderness?”, our first reading offers a quick reminder. The wilderness was the place where Israel had learned (and then forgotten) how to trust God, the God who had brought them out of slavery in Egypt. The wilderness was the place where, time and time again, they came up against their own failures, their own short-comings, and discovered how totally they were dependent on God. It’s the place where people discover, still, that life is not always “onward and upward”, that there are sudden slips and slides which make them fall backward and downward. In a sense, that’s the place where most of the western nations have unexpectedly found themselves during these past weeks: and the place from which most of the world’s other nations say “Welcome to our reality.”
So, Luke seems to be saying, Jesus is undergoing in forty days what the Israelites had to endure for forty years. What’s more, Jesus is coming through the experience in a way that they didn’t. He bats away the devil’s attempts to snare him as we might bat away an irritating insect.
Jesus bats the devil away by quoting the words of Scripture. Does the devil play on Jesus’ hunger after six weeks’ fasting? Well, humans are not only physical beings, they are also spiritual. The human soul, the human spirit, needs nourishment just as much as the human body. “One does not live by bread alone,” says Jesus, picking up Moses’ words to the Israelites. So what about taking over the kingdoms of this world in order to bring in God’s kingdom? All Jesus has to do is bow down to naked power. But there’s a greater power, although Christians haven’t always succeeded in remembering that. “Worship the Lord your God,” says Jesus, “and serve only him.”. Again, Jesus is quoting what Moses said to the Israelites as they prepared to enter the land that God had promised. And finally, why not show everyone you’re special? Here it looks as though the devil has learned his lesson, quoting a verse from this morning’s psalm to encourage that step over the parapet. So for the third time Jesus repeats words that Moses spoke to Israel in his final teaching. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
But they did, and we still do. Not least in Ukraine and Russia. And thanks be to God for the Russian Orthodox priests (three hundred so far, and counting) who have distanced themselves from their own Patriarch to call out President Putin’s aggression for what it is, in some cases taking their stand firmly on Scripture. As they challenge him, so they challenge us, to engage with what is going on around us in the light of the faith we profess, in the light of God’s written word in Scripture and above all in the light of God’s living Word, Jesus, who did not bow down to the powers of this world but gave himself up to death in obedience to the Father. During these weeks of Lent we will follow him through the wilderness along the way that will lead him to the cross. During this time let us renew and deepen our engagement with him, in the words of Scripture, in prayer and self-examination, and in sharing the sacrament of the Eucharist, in which we receive, not stones which have become bread, but bread which has become for us the body of our Lord.
Ash Wednesday (2.3.2022)
Yesterday evening on Zoom, and on the Diocese’s “YouTube” channel, there was a service of prayer for the people of Ukraine, set up by this diocese and shared across the Church of England (and beyond). There were contributions from both sides of the front line. Christina, one of the churchwardens of Christ Church, Kyiv (her colleague has been ordered out of Ukraine by his government) – Christina told us what was going on in and around the city, and Malcolm Rogers, my colleague in Moscow, shared some of the experience of the people to whom he ministers and with whom he worships as Western sanctions begin to bite. Both of them brought home, in a way that footage on the news or on social media rarely does, what it means to be caught up in a war.
As we prayed our way through their contributions, and the Psalm, and the Gospel reading, it struck me that we were doing what the prophet Joel, in our first reading, was urging on the people of Judah – and doing it for the same reason. The prophet’s call to “blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people” comes in response to the arrival of a great army, from the north, “a great and powerful army” as devastating in its destructiveness as the plague of locusts with which the book opens, bringing with it “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.”
That day is “the day of the Lord”, the day of God’s judgement. The prophet’s urgent summons to repentance is his response to that day. “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” That emphasis on God’s mercy, which becomes more and more pronounced as the prophecies of Joel continue – that emphasis was also heard last night. In the face of the Russian invasion there is hope, as Joel found hope in the face of that great army. There is hope because God does not forget his people. There is hope despite our sin.
That does not mean that the coming weeks, or months, will not be difficult and dangerous – as if we didn’t have enough to cope with already, with the pandemic and an increasingly urgent climate crisis, neither of which is likely to be shut down either by Vladimir Putin’s militarism or by UN resolutions. Quite the opposite, I suspect. What it does mean is that it is not the malice of human beings which controls how the story turns out – any more than it was in today’s Gospel. The scribes and the Pharisees thought they had the woman bang to rights, “caught in the very act of committing adultery”. They probably also thought that if Jesus reacted to their challenge as they expected they’d have him bang to rights, too.
But it didn’t go to plan, any more than the invasion of Ukraine has been going to plan. Comic actors from TV series aren’t supposed to turn into heroic national leaders. Unarmed civilians aren’t supposed to stop military vehicles by surrounding them and asking the drivers where they think they are going. A western alliance whose member states have become heavily dependent on Russia for their fuel supply isn’t supposed to impose crippling sanctions on their supplier.
Jesus, writing in the dust, turned the Pharisees’ plans to dust. In the end, one way or another, Vladimir Putin’s plans will also turn to dust – as he will, and as we all will. “We are dust and to dust we shall return”. But we are dust in which God’s finger traces a message of mercy, if we can receive it, and act on it. Not, like the Pharisees, by going away, “one by one, beginning with the elders”, but by embracing the chaos of this war and holding before God all who are caught up in it, and all who, like us, stand horror-struck on the sidelines. It is in that “holding” that change can happen. In such a situation of apparent helplessness, our work is to do just that, “standing”, as Fr Gilbert Shaw said 50 years ago, “holding things without being deflected by your own desires or the desires of other people round you. Then things work out just through patience. How things alter we don’t know, but the situation alters.” An important part of our discipline this Lent will be to stand before God, aware of the chaos, the courage and the helplessness and to hold them until somehow the situation alters and we find that God has left a blessing behind him.
Sunday next before Lent (27.2.2022)
In ordinary years, today’s readings would offer a point of reassurance, a foretaste of Easter to encourage us before we set out, with Jesus and the Twelve, along the road that leads to Jerusalem and the cross. But today, as the news comes in from Ukraine, we realise that the thick clouds overshadowing the way of the cross have already come upon us. We can barely turn our attention to the transfiguration of Jesus. The images of the disfiguration of Kyiv, and now Kharkiv by Russian guns and missiles are too powerful and too immediate. What have today’s readings to say to a world in which Vladimir Putin appears to be the piper, and the leaders of the other nations must dance to his tune or risk the nuclear annihilation of their people?
Let’s turn, in the first place, away from those terrifying clouds of smoke from blazing vehicles and burning buildings to that other cloud, the cloud which overshadowed Peter and the sons of Zebedee and filled them with terror. “From the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’” ‘This is my Son.’ Not a man of lawlessness. Not an agent of destruction, prepared to consign thousands to death or disfigurement so long as he achieves his goal. The Son of God is the Son of Man who gives his life as a ransom for many, the One whose departure, which he will accomplish in Jerusalem, opens for all human beings the way to life. The Son of God brings healing, and not destruction, life, and not darkness, as even the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church seem to be realising, after their long captivity to the warm words and generous financial support offered by the present regime in Moscow. The renewal of “Holy Russia” cannot be achieved by such unholy means.
Equally, the overthrow of a murderous tyrant cannot be achieved by countering his violence with violence of our own, irrespective of the risk of nuclear war. The most powerful image of Ukrainian resistance which has been doing the rounds since Thursday is of an elderly woman offering a packet of sunflower seeds to a heavily-armed Russian soldier.
Her courage, like the courage of the man who stopped his car by a broken-down Russian tank and offered its crew a tow back to Russia, speaks to us of an awareness of shared humanity which seems to have escaped Vladimir Putin. It also points us to the words of the Psalmist, who affirms that “The Lord is king.” Supreme rule over all things is not wielded by a former KGB officer, however terrifying he may be to his ministers and advisers. “The Lord is king” – a king who loves truth and justice. “You have established equity”, says the Psalmist; “you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.” And not only in Jacob. The Lord, the God of Israel, may be “great in Zion”. He is also “high above all peoples”: above Russia and Ukraine, above the nations who make up the EU and NATO, above India and Turkey and China and other nations with their own agendas who are watching carefully as events in Eastern Europe unfold.
We, too, watch – and wait, and weep, in solidarity with all who are caught up in this horrific situation: not only with the Ukrainians and their courageous president, but with the Russian people, especially those who risked their own safety and freedom on the streets of Moscow, St Petersburg and many other cities to protest against what their president is doing in their name, and with the people of the Baltic republics, of Finland and Sweden, and with the nations already receiving trainloads of refugees from the fighting.
We hold them all before God, as we hold the leaders of the nations who have to try to contain and somehow reverse this situation without provoking catastrophe. And we do so in the name of Jesus, God’s Son, God’s Chosen, who took on himself all the violence and hatred of the world and bore it in his body to the cross. In a few moments we shall bring our prayers before God, prayers for people whom we know and love, prayers for those who may be only names to us but for whom our prayers have been asked, and we shall do so this morning using words and music that come from the Ukrainian Church: Gospodi pomiluy. Lord, have mercy.
2 before Lent (20.2.2022)
In the strange courtroom scene which ends “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, there’s a moment in which the Queen of Hearts tells the King that sentencing comes first, and the verdict afterwards – and that’s before the court has heard most of the evidence. Well, this morning’s readings are a bit like that. Not so much “sentence first” and “verdict afterwards” as answer first and question afterwards. The Gospel reading ends with a question to which we have already heard the answer at the end of the reading from Revelation.
‘Who then is this?’ the astonished disciples ask. ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’ And the answer comes from the twenty-four elders seated around the throne when they sing ‘You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.’ As he stills the storm, Jesus is revealing the power of God at work within him, revealing his command over the turbulent water of the Sea of Galilee, as the creation story at the beginning of Genesis revealed the Word of God calming the turbulent waters of primeval chaos and bringing life out of the darkness, the “tohu w’bohu” of the formless void.
Now, as we look at the world around us we might wonder whether that calming Word really exists. As we look at the climate chaos hitting country after country, Mozambique two weeks ago, Britain and other parts of northern Europe last week, we might well be asking who’s next for storms and floods and raging seas? The Covid-19 pandemic shows no signs of going away any time soon, despite the general lifting of restrictions across Europe. And politically the world isn’t in much better shape: the tension between Russia and Ukraine may be hogging the headlines, but there are civil wars and insurgencies rippling across Africa and the Middle East, from Mali to Afghanistan, from Syria to the Congo. Even in Canada anti-vaxxers have been clogging up the capital and blocking bridges which cross the border with the USA.
There’s unrest in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Myanmar. People of faith are being persecuted in China, from Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang province to Anglican Christians in Hong Kong. Christians, specifically, are being targeted in India and Pakistan. Surely there’s every reason for us to cry out with the terrified disciples, ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’
But as we look at the world we are looking only at what is happening on the surface. John’s vision takes us, in its outward story, through that open door into heaven. It takes us, in its inward meaning, deep into the heart of reality, the reality which is sustained by the “one seated upon the throne”.
Now please don’t think that John is offering a literal picture of heaven. John deals in symbols. They may be drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures, from Jewish worship, from the world of pagan religion, from the rituals of royal and imperial courts – or from the law-courts. And in the passage that we heard this morning, the symbols reaffirm that God is eternally present to the creation. In the words of the four living creatures, ‘Holy, holy, holy, [is] the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.’ God is equally present to all of time and space.
That passage comes, we need to remember, immediately after the letters to the seven churches of Asia which detail the suffering of God’s people and the dangers to which they were exposed even then; from external forces, from internal divisions, from failure to live as disciples of Jesus. Like the whole of John’s vision it comes not as comfort or consolation, but as encouragement to remain steadfast in faith, constant in hope, and committed in love. It’s a reminder that those who are on our side are infinitely more powerful than the forces ranged against us. There is hope for us; there is hope for this world which God made and loves, there is hope because the Lord God the Almighty has come to us in Jesus, as he comes to us this morning in the bread and wine of our Communion, to still the storms that rage in human hearts.
3 before Lent (13.2.2022)
One of the things that scholars tell us about Luke the Evangelist is that he was a cultured, educated, politically aware city-dweller from one of the great Greek-speaking cities of the eastern Mediterranean. He was also a great story-teller, and a man who liked his stories to be accurate. Getting titles right, getting dates and times right are his big things. He says so right at the beginning of his Gospel. What he doesn’t say is that he is, in his quiet way, a radical, even revolutionary, writer – and he tells the story of a radical, even revolutionary, Jesus. Mary’s song, in the first chapter of his gospel, was rightly described by a hymn-writer of the last century as “a song of high revolt”.
In today’s gospel, Jesus begins to lay out before the crowds who were following him what it means to be part of the people of God, almost as if he is creating a new Israel, renewing, upgrading, the work of Moses. Parts of the story of Moses parallel the beginning of today’s Gospel. Jesus comes down from the mountain where he has spent the night in prayerful communion with the Father, bringing with him the Twelve, as Moses had come down from Mount Sinai with the elders of Israel after they had gone up with him to eat and drink in the presence of God. Then, like Moses at the beginning of Deuteronomy, Jesus gathers the people on the plain and, after healing the sick and curing “those who were troubled with unclean spirits”, he speaks to them in the name of the Lord.
Now this “sermon on the plain”, as it’s sometimes called, has several points in common with the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel, but it’s really quite different. Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel is teaching the disciples. Here Jesus is preaching, almost prophesying. “He looked up at his disciples and said” – what?
Well, at first glance it looks as though Jesus is saying the same as he says in the Sermon on the Mount. This sermon begins with a set of blessings, as Matthew’s does: but they are shorter and much more concrete. It’s not the “poor in spirit” whom Jesus blesses here. It’s the poor. It’s not those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” It’s the hungry. Those who weep now won’t “be comforted”. They will laugh. And all who suffer hostility, exclusion, abuse and defamation “on account of the Son of Man”, won’t simply “rejoice”; they will positively “leap”, even dance, for joy, as John the Baptist did in his mother’s womb when he heard Mary’s greeting.
So that’s it. No more blessings. Where Matthew has nine, Luke stops at four. But he adds something that is missing in Matthew’s Gospel. Each blessing has its mirror image in a “woe”. Woe to the rich, to the well-fed, to those who laugh, to those who are well thought of. I said that Luke tells the story of a radical Jesus. This sermon is not just radical: it is turning the world on its head. Who doesn’t want to be well-off and well fed, happy and well-regarded? Comfortable European and North American scholars (and church congregations) find these “woes” difficult and unsettling. Others, who know, from their everyday experience, what poverty and hunger, and sorrow and abuse really are, might have fewer problems in accepting them.
What Jesus is telling them, what Jesus is telling us, is that those who are poor, hungry, weeping, treated badly – they are the people who are in the right place: in relation to their own lives, but more importantly in relation to God. Being well-off and well-fed, happy and “successful” is a very good recipe for blocking out God and exploiting other people. The rich and successful have to project the image of prosperity and success and they have to protect the sources of their wealth. And that, Jesus tells us, is deadly. In Luke’s Gospel he tells powerful stories about the destructive effect of riches. It’s only in Luke that we find the stories about the rich fool, the dishonest manager, the rich man and Lazarus. And we know how destructive wealth and prosperity can be. What’s Nigeria’s biggest problem? Who makes money out of the “prosperity Gospel”? God comes among us not in wealth and power but in the poverty of Jesus of Nazareth, who warns us to beware of a life whose sole focus is success and prosperity.
4 before Lent (6.2.2022)
On this day, seventy years ago, a young woman taking a short break at a lodge in a Kenyan safari park from a heavy schedule of travel and official visits was greeted with the news that her father had died and that she was now, at the age of not quite twenty-six, the head of state, not only of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but of a huge swathe of territories around the world from the Eastern Pacific to the Southern Ocean. She had also become the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. So it’s right that we should, even in Genova, mark this day by thanking God for Queen Elizabeth’s long reign, for her commitment over seven decades to serving the people, not just of Britain but of the Commonwealth of Nations which replaced the Empire she inherited from her father, and for the deeply-rooted Christian faith which has sustained her throughout that time.
On the same day in Liverpool a three-year-old boy was feeling deeply distressed and frustrated. All the radio programmes that he liked (there weren’t many TV sets around back then) – all of them had been cancelled. In place of the children’s programmes that he enjoyed there was endless music, all of it very solemn and serious – even on what was then known as “The BBC Light Programme”. His mother was burdened with the task of coping both with her own sorrow at the king’s death and with her child’s anger and disappointment. So I remember very clearly the year King George died.
Twenty-seven centuries earlier, the prophet Isaiah remembered clearly the year another king died, King Uzziah of Judah, who had ruled in Jerusalem for over fifty years. As we heard in our first reading, it was in that year that Isaiah had an overwhelming experience of the presence of God, “high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple”, surrounded by heavenly beings, creatures so powerful that the sound of their voice caused an earthquake. Isaiah was overcome by shame and confusion.
He cried out: ‘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!’ But in the midst of his shame and confusion, in the midst of the overpowering awareness of his unworthiness, his sense that no human being can look on God and live, Isaiah received a call: to go to God’s people and to speak God’s word to them.
We move forward in time not quite eight centuries, and in space from Jerusalem to the north of Palestine, to Galilee. There are no dead kings here, but there is an experience of divine power which, even if it is less overwhelming than Isaiah’s vision in the temple, still turns the lives of Simon and the sons of Zebedee upside down. Simon Peter’s response is like the prophet’s: ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ And the response from Jesus to Simon and his partners is the same as God’s response to the prophet, a call to a new way of life in God’s service: ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’
In each of these stories, there has been a moment in which something, or someone, has broken through the protective shell of everyday life and activated a call to God’s service – and a response to that call in deepened faith. In Queen Elizabeth’s case it was the death of a much-loved parent. In Isaiah’s case it was his vision in the temple. In Simon Peter’s case it was that miraculous catch of fish. It doesn’t have to be a miracle, or a vision, which acts as the trigger. It can be great love, or great sorrow. In my case, as in Queen Elizabeth’s, it was sorrow. Like her, I lost my father when I was in my mid-twenties. For some years I had been living with a vague feeling that God was calling me, but I was quite happy with my life and didn’t want things to change. Then my father died, suddenly and unexpectedly, like King George. My comfortable world was shattered and I knew that this was my wake-up call. After six years of discernment and training I was ordained deacon in St Alban’s Abbey at Petertide 1982. It had taken a while, but God’s calling found me in the end, as it finds each one of us, inviting us, like Simon Peter, to “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch”.
Presentation of Christ in the Temple (30.1.2022)
Today’s first reading, from the prophecies of Malachi, is one of those that makes us sit up and listen. It’s one of those prophetic promises which is also a warning. Or, if you’d rather “accentuate the positive”, one of those warnings which is also a promise. “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” That is very good news for people who have only recently been allowed to return home from seven long decades in exile to find their land occupied by others, their city desolate and their holy place in ruins. That is quite some promise. And it gets better. “The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.”
But then it doesn’t. The promise does indeed contain a warning – a warning which is phrased as a question: “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” Not very many, appears to be the answer, and it’s going to be a painful process for everyone. “For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.” And the purifying won’t end with the descendants of Levi. The whole of God’s people will come under God’s judgement. The list begins with obvious sinners, sorcerers and adulterers, but then it goes on to include those who twist the truth, who fiddle the books, who take advantage of people who are powerless and marginalised. God’s judgement is pronounced “against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien.” This is good news with quite a powerful sting in its tail – for those who have power and privilege.
Now fast-forward about five centuries, to a Judah and Jerusalem which have been rebuilt, to a city whose holy place is no longer a pile of ruins. Indeed, it is undergoing a spectacular make-over. But the Lord hasn’t come. The land is under foreign occupation.
The rich and powerful are still taking advantage of those who are powerless and marginalised. People are still twisting the truth and fiddling the books. The hired workers, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner still find it hard to get what is due to them. It’s in that situation, so Luke tells us, that two parents bring their first-born son to Jerusalem “to do for him what was customary under the law.” They aren’t well-off. Their offering is the minimum allowed under the Law of Moses: ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’ A more prosperous family would have brought a sheep for sacrifice. It’s totally routine, as it has been for generations.
Except it isn’t. This offering is interrupted. Twice. First by the old man Simeon, who takes the child in his arms and praises God that he has lived to see this day. Then by the even older Anna, who buttonholes pilgrims and worshippers to tell them about this child, “to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” For Anna and Simeon the prophecy of Malachi, the Lord’s messenger, has been fulfilled. “The Lord whom you seek” has indeed “suddenly come to his temple.” But not in the majestic appearance which the prophet foresees. Not in the unendurable glory burning up sinners with a fire as fierce as the fire with which gold and silver are purified.
This child comes to judge the people, certainly. Simeon tells his mother, “The inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” But his judgment will be the judgement of love – a love that will submit to the worst that sinful human beings can do to it, piercing his mother’s heart with the sharp sword of grief; a love that will never give up on human beings, a love that prays for their forgiveness even as they nail him to the gallows on which they will kill him. Today we are beginning the journey which will take us from Bethlehem’s crib to the cross on Golgotha. Today, in our midst, the King of glory has come in, to purify us with his love as he offers himself for our redemption, sharing with us his life under tokens of bread and wine.
Epiphany 3 (23.1.2022)
We’re coming toward the end of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which ends, as always, with our celebration, at lunchtime on Tuesday, of the Conversion of St Paul. So it’s good to hear, as we just have, what St Paul has to say about unity among Christian people.
When we think about the first Christians, especially when we read the Acts of the Apostles, we can easily imagine that everything was wonderful and that it’s only in fairly recent times that it has all gone wrong. When we read Paul’s letters we very soon learn how misguided that view is. There have been divisions from the very beginning. One was between people who believed that in order to be a “real Christian” you first had to be Jewish – or become Jewish if you weren’t born a Jew – and those who didn’t. Another was between the fan clubs of different Christian leaders in those early years. The first of St Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth is full of echoes of those arguments: “We belong to Paul”, says one group. “We belong to Peter”, replies another. “We belong to Apollos”, proclaims a third (probably the “intellectuals”). And then there’s the group who try to squash all the others by telling them “We belong to Christ.”
Then again, as we saw last week, there are the people to whom God has given particular gifts but who use those gifts not to built up the church – which is the reason why they were given – but to boast how much better they are than the people who don’t have those gifts. St Paul is often pictured as bald, and I think I know why. Those Christians in Corinth – and elsewhere – probably caused him to tear his hair out!
But Paul never gives up on them, as we can see from today’s first reading. There Paul is trying to explain to the Corinthians how the various gifts of God’s Holy Spirit which he described in the passage we heard last Sunday come together for the common good. And he picks on a brilliant, and very powerful, image – one which he comes back to later in the letter, and which he uses in letters to other churches. It’s the image of the church as body.
Now, Paul’s chief concern is getting the various parts of one quarrelsome congregation to work together for the good of all, but that image of the church as body applies to the whole church, that “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” in which we will shortly say we believe, as we do every Sunday morning. To be truly “catholic” – which comes from the Greek word meaning “universal” – the church needs the insights and the gifts of all the different traditions, Eastern Orthodox, Western Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, Valdese… As St Paul writes to the Corinthians, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.” No single Christian tradition has it all. Not even the Church of England!
But to go back to Paul: “God arranged the members in the body”. God puts us together, if we will let God do that, in such a way that we can continue the work of Jesus, God’s Son. As St Paul goes on to write, “you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” And by “members” he means limbs, or organs, like the hand, the foot, the ear, the eye, and so on, each one necessary for the proper functioning of the whole body. And what is the function of the whole body? It’s to carry on the work of Christ in the world. To proclaim – and to live – the message which Jesus proclaimed in the synagogue in Nazareth: “to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
None of us can do all of that on our own. All of us working together can do some of it. All of us, when we recognise the gifts God has given each of us, can use those gifts to make a difference to the lives of others. That applies on the level of our own congregation. It applies on the level of all the different churches of this city. The Spirit of the Lord, the Holy Ghost in whose honour this church is dedicated – the Spirit equips us, together, to bring the joy of Christ to the world.
Epiphany 2 (16.1.2022)
Yesterday I was caught up in a discussion on Anglican Twitter about why the Church keeps a long Christmastide. One or two folk were clearly hankering after keeping only those “twelve days of Christmas”, as in the old carol. So you get as far as the coming of the wise men and that’s that. Change back from white into green. Put the crib away ready for next Christmas. Thank you and good (twelfth) night.
But to stop there means that we miss out on a great deal of the story about how God was revealed in Jesus, which is what “Epiphany” actually means – or “Theophany” as they call it in the Eastern Church. For Orthodox Christians the wise men don’t play anything like as big a part as they do here in the West. For the Eastern Churches the important story is the one we heard last week about the baptism of Jesus. For them, it’s not just Jesus who is revealed; it’s God as Trinity. In other words, Father (in the voice), Son (in the water of baptism) and Spirit (descending like a dove).
Then there’s today’s gospel reading. Here again God is revealed in something Jesus does. And Jesus is, as one of our hymns last Sunday reminded us “manifest in power divine, changing water into wine.” The story of the marriage at Cana operates, like so much in John’s Gospel, on a number of different levels. There’s the rescue from potential catastrophe. In Mary’s whispered message to Jesus, ‘They have no wine,’ there’s social disaster looming. What couple starting life together would want their wedding to be remembered as “the one where the wine gave out”? Jesus saves them from that. Then there’s the way in which he saves the situation. He takes ordinary, everyday stuff, the water stored so that people can wash when they come in. Jesus takes that water and he transforms it into something special: wine, really good wine: something with which to celebrate. And then, as John reminds us, there’s the pay-off: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs… and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
Let’s pause there for a moment, and think what that means: and think back to the beginning of the Gospel reading. That wedding in Cana of Galilee took place “on the third day”. Those who know the ins and outs of the opening chapter of John’s Gospel might work out that it is the third day since John the Baptist pointed Jesus out as the Lamb of God to two of his disciples. But John never adds a note about the time when something happens just for the sake of it. When he mentions the day, or the hour, that mention is usually heavy with meaning. “On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee,” and Jesus transformed water into wine. Later in John’s Gospel there is another “third day” when what is transformed is not simply the contents of six stone water jars but the whole of creation – starting with the disciples, the witnesses of “the first of his signs” in which Jesus revealed his glory. They will also be witnesses of his resurrection.
And that brings us to today’s first reading in which St Paul spells out to those less-than-perfect disciples in Corinth what it means to be transformed as members of the body of the risen Christ. Some of them clearly saw themselves as more “transformed” than others – and looked down on those others. So Paul tells them not to be so foolish. There are varieties of gifts, and there are varieties of services and activities, but they are not to be “ranked” as if they were taking part in some kind of spiritual beauty competition. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” That is the key sentence and “for the common good” is the key phrase. Whether in Corinth 2000 years ago or in Genoa now, each Christian has a job to do for God. Each one of us has a contribution to the life of this church. Some are up-front and public, like the chaplain, the churchwardens, lesson-readers, the musicians, the welcomers. Others are more hidden, like the church councillors, the cleaning team, the people who keep the grounds free of litter, the people who stock the food bank, or collect donations of clothes. Others are usually invisible, like the people who visit the sick or who pray each day through our chaplaincy cycle of prayer. All are necessary for the well-being of this congregation. All are gifts from God to be offered to God.
The Baptism of Christ (9.1.2022)
Bishop Christopher Wordsworth, was Bishop of Lincoln from 1869-1885, and founded the college where I trained for ministry. Some people said that he had “one foot in heaven and the other in the third century”, which is a bit of a put-down, suggesting that he was one of those Christians who are “so heavenly-minded that they are no earthly use”. It was also quite a compliment, because it recognised that Bishop Wordsworth was steeped in the writings of the thinkers and writers who shaped the development of Christian faith. He also knew from his studies of that era how effective hymns can be as a means of conveying Christian teaching.
As a nephew of the poet William Wordsworth he may not have had his uncle’s poetic gifts, but he knew how to express Christian ideas in verse. The hymn with which John began today’s Eucharist was one of Bishop Wordsworth’s. It pulls together the themes of this Epiphany season, focusing on how Jesus was made known to the world: in the coming of the wise men; in the changing of water into wine at Cana in Galilee; in the healing of people afflicted in mind and body: and, close to the top of the list, at his baptism at which Jesus was, in Christopher Wordsworth’s words, “manifest at Jordan’s stream, prophet, priest and king supreme.”
So we find John the Baptist, himself a prophet, pointing towards the “more powerful one” who will come with the spirit and fire of prophesy to purify God’s people and kindle their hearts with God’s love. We find Jesus, after his baptism, devoting himself to the priestly ministry of prayer. And we hear the voice from heaven calling attention to Jesus in words that the Psalmist uses to describe Israel’s king “You are my Son”, a straight quotation from one of the “royal psalms”, Psalm 2.
Each of those titles, “prophet, priest and king”, and each description of the work which is linked to those titles speaks of the privilege and the challenge which are ours. Through our baptism into Christ, through the gift of the Spirit, we have become part of that prophetic, royal priesthood which is the body of Christ on earth. Through our baptism we have entered into covenant with God, the covenant first made with the people of Israel and renewed, as we have heard, in Jesus Christ. In this covenant God promises us new life in Christ (that’s the privilege), while we promise to live no longer for ourselves but for God (that, dear brothers and sisters, is the challenge). We renew the covenant each time we share in the Holy Communion. We renew it today as we renew the promises made at our baptism, the promises which many of us confirmed when the bishop laid hands on us and prayed that we might be confirmed with God’s Holy Spirit, the same Spirit which descended on Jesus at his baptism and which was imparted to those first Samaritan Christians by Peter and John through the laying on of their hands.
Each new year in Methodist Churches this covenant with God is formally renewed, and the words of the Covenant Service spell out what that means. They spell out that Christ has many services to be done. They remind those taking part in the service that some of those services are easy, others are difficult; some bring honour, others bring reproach; some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests, others are contrary to both; in some we may please Christ and please ourselves; in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves.
The prayer in which each church member then renews their covenant with God is a powerful reminder that when we say in the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come”, the consequence has to be “My kingdom go.” Or, in the words of that prayer, “Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you or laid aside for you, exalted for you or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing; I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.” A friend who had begun life as a Methodist once confessed to me that she found those words so demanding that she could not say them. But the demand, though great, is more than out-weighed by the gift. And the gift is that by the covenant made in baptism God is ours, and we are God’s. So be it. Amen and Amen.
Epiphany of Our Lord (2.1.2022)
How do you deal with disappointment? How do you react when things don’t go according to plan? Do you take to heart the words of the old proverb: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again”? Or do you go along with the more modern version: “If at first you don’t succeed, give up”? Some people take refuge in bad language, a stream of four-letter-words. Others do as a much-loved hymn advises: they “take it to the Lord in prayer.”
However you react, I suspect that you are unlikely to echo those words of the prophet that we heard just now. The third prophet whose writings have come down to us under the name of Isaiah was writing in a time of great disappointment for the surviving people of Judah. High hopes had been aroused by the decree of king Cyrus of Persia, allowing the Jewish exiles to return home after seventy years in Babylon, but few had actually taken up the offer. The temple and the holy city were still half in ruins. There was push-back against those who returned from the people who had gained money or land out of their absence. People were deflated, disappointed, depressed – like many people today, who can see no end in sight to the pandemic.
It’s into that situation that the prophet’s message comes: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” It may not look like it, but God is at work. “For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.” Don’t give up hope, in other words. Don’t give up because things will be much better than anything you can see now: much, much better than anything you can imagine now. “Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.”
But it isn’t going to be like it was before. In the past the vision of the prophets had been about the restoration of Israel, the renewal of the kingdom which had been ruled by David and Solomon. This vision is of a very different state of affairs. “The abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.” Everyone is included.
Five centuries later there was another difficult situation for the people of Judah. The whole of David’s kingdom was under foreign rule. Even the parts that weren’t directly ruled by the Romans were under the control of a king who wasn’t Jewish. King Herod belonged to the rival nation of the Idumeans, the Edomites, descended, so it was said, not from Israel but from his brother Esau. And King Herod was ruthless in hanging on to power. Wives, children, valued advisers, all were killed when the king felt they were becoming too powerful. It would be fair to say that Herod did not go in for succession planning.
So when a high-powered delegation arrived from the territory of Rome’s rival super-power asking about a new king, it is hardly surprising that “[Herod] was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” He was the kind of ruler of whom a poet wrote
“When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.”
But near that city, under that ruler, in a place associated with king David, Matthew’s Gospel locates the fulfilment of the prophet’s message. The wise men bring gold and frankincense to honour this “child who has been born king of the Jews”, the child in whom all God’s promises will find their fruition – and not only for the Jews, but for all humanity. Amid the “thick darkness” of King Herod’s reign “the glory of the Lord has risen”; and because “the glory of the Lord has risen” we too can “arise, shine; for [our] light has come.” That same glory has risen upon us, no matter how deep the gloom, no matter how long and difficult the way ahead may be. Hope is possible. Healing, renewal and peace are possible. God is with us, in the Psalmist’s words, to deliver the poor that cry out, the needy and those who have no helper; to have pity on the weak and poor; to preserve the lives of the needy; to redeem their lives from oppression and violence.
Sermons from 2019 can be accessed here https://drive.google.com/file/d/16zW5rCtjqJ16QEATrh7CUdNKfuEpmPw7/view?usp=sharing
Sermons from 2018 can be accessed here https://drive.google.com/file/d/1nQZ7Oih7rXtmxUZP1q3topBN24ViuLHI/view?usp=sharing