Parish Priest's Review Sermon and Meditation for the Third Sunday of Easter
19th Apr 2015
REVIEW OF THE YEAR
I want this year to speak briefly to review the year that has passed. It has been a year of very mixed emotions both sad and refreshing, joyful and tremendously hopeful. The deaths of Louis Lewis, Lillian Ruff, Francis Le Feuvre Marion Spencer and Tony James in particular has left quite a gap at Holy Cross and their going has been painful. But is in the nature of churches and of life itself that this will happen. We have been truly privileged to know them, and how ever we miss them, we know that they have made their journey, firm in the Christian Faith and they have left us their legacy in service and in trust for the Church they loved. Now they are with their Lord. Their lives and their involvement in this Church spurs us on to remain loyal and faithful in the Christian Faith and to be active in envisioning and working for new life and deepening and enriching the experience of the Christian faith for all who form part of our community of faith at whatever level.
The Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ speaks of the proper sense in which life may emerge even as death is felt. We have been privileged to witness the Baptism of Lisa and Austin and Anabel and André, the marriage of Alexander and Natasha here in church and the Confirmation of our own Genevieve, Afrosa, Lisa and Sivakumar at St George’s Bloomsbury. We have pledged to look forward to Pentecost and its promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit, by meeting to plan for the offering of holy anointing within Parish Eucharist. Our prayer is that a greater awareness of the reality and powerful influence of the Holy Spirit may become a staple of our mission planning for this place and that it may release the gifts we have in all of us in the service of Christ and of one another. We have continued to welcome our visitors each Sunday from across the world and we are proud to belong to a church which is continually reaching out to the stranger in our midst and to the visitor pilgrim.
And so this year has brought death and new life, green shoots, the release of new energies, abundance of welcome new life but above all a carrying forward of the one thing which our departed friends have left behind, a passion and a commitment to the Christian Church in our own Holy Cross Church to which we in turn pledge our loyalty and faithful commitment, prayer and passion.
SERMON/MEDITATION ON THE GOSPEL READING FOR
THE THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER
The appearance of Jesus following the Resurrection is no figment of the imagination. Jesus is no ghost. He is for real. He simply asks for something to eat and then he eats a piece of fish. We are denied the sublime disclosure of the stranger on the road to Emmaus, or the spine tingling effect of the doubting Thomas plunging his finger into Christ’s wounded side. Here the appearance is all too plain. The apostles are being given a sign, the sign of the fish.
The meaning of this sign takes us beyond the truth or falsehood of mere appearances. There is another intention here. For the sign of the fish recalls the apostles back to Galilee, the place of their first calling. It is an echo of the words of the angels in the tomb “remember what he told you when he was still in Galilee”. (24.6) It’s a sign for the mutual recognition of their apostleship and for the transformation of their relationships through what Rowan Williams has called, “the triumph of Christ’s defenceless love”. It’s a recall to the first principles of the Christian faith in the life and death and resurrection of Christ and it is to be learnt by heart.
The most revealing question you can be asked is how you first came to The Christian Faith. The answer to that question will reveal so much about you and about the reality of God’s action in your life. Its remembrance and expression is as “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1.27). It is also your re-call to Galilee. And it is from this Galilee, the place of your first calling, that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ continues to be realised in you. For far beyond the realms of either strict logic or sceptical indifference lies that place in the human heart where faith has been established and which is recalled and refreshed from a source other than itself, our risen Lord, Jesus Christ. In this way we offer the world our joyful cry from the heart: “We are God’s Easter People and alleluya is our Song!” Jesus is for ever real.
Unfathomed love divine
Reign thou within my heart;
From thee nor depth nor height,
Nor life nor death can part;
Our life is hid with God in thee,
Now and through all eternity. Amen.
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter
12th Apr 2015
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter Year B
Then (Jesus) said to him “Do not doubt but believe”.
Thomas answered him “My Lord and my God!” John 20.27b,28.
In the painting ‘The Incredulity of Thomas’ by Caravaggio, Thomas is a gnarled old peasant, who, with furrowed brow and inquisitive and amazed eyes, has placed his bloodied index finger into a wound in Christ’s side. Two other disciples look down at the implanted finger as though medical students at an examination in a teaching hospital. But they are not young medical students but rough old peasants with dirty finger nails. In a fascinating detail, Jesus guides Thomas’ finger into the wound. The scene is spine tingling. You are a witness to a startling scene, and you feel its effect viscerally, with your nerve endings, and it makes you want to shudder!
The painting takes the dialogue between Jesus and Thomas and involves us to the extent that it is WE who are made to feel the finger going into the Christ’s wound ourselves. The spiritual reality of the resurrection is to be experienced in the flesh. The Resurrection of Jesus presents for the mind of the sceptic a difficult or even impossible level of understanding. In this context Thomas becomes the hero of the piece, for he echoes that all too human incredulity which befalls the one for whom faith and wonder exist on the unreachable or neglected side of the human imagination. But Jesus is there as the abiding reality, for Caravaggio he is bathed in light. He is the one who with guiding hand, allows us to see that the spiritual and the physical, the past and the present, have become one in him. As the hymn says ‘Only believe and thou shalt see, that Christ is all in all to thee’. But belief is not a simple business. Thomas makes it look very easy.
But for Thomas the disciple, this was not always the case. Several chapters earlier in John’s Gospel, when the news reaches the ears of Christ that Lazarus is dead, Jesus speaks at first of Lazarus as being asleep, and that he must go and wake him. The apostles are concerned that Jesus will be stoned if he returns to Judæa. What follows tells us more about Thomas, and surprises us:
‘Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe; nevertheless let us go unto him. Then said Thomas, which is called Didymus, unto his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go with him, that we may die with him.' John 11.16.
Here Thomas is far from doubting, he is the one who is willing to follow Jesus unto death and to risk the consequences. It is the believing Thomas who cries ‘Let us go with him!” John 11.6. No wonder then, that in the eastern orthodox churches, Thomas is known not as a doubter but as ‘Thomas the Believer’. If we are honest, we might say that Christian Faith finds its centre of gravity somewhere between a kind of certainty and a kind of doubting. Many of our well-known hymns express this kind of faith, in which God is seen in hiddenness and inaccessibility. ‘Immortal Invisible God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes’, we sing. And in the hymn ‘Jerusalem the Golden’ comes a ringing endorsement of the existence of heaven with the admission that ‘I know not, O I know not, what solid joys lie there…’ Thomas sets before us the existence of faith and doubt as part of the one offering to God. This is echoed in the poetry of R S Thomas as he describes the idea of faith as both presence and absence, and as the confounding of that desire as TS Eliot put it, to ‘verify, instruct yourself, inform curiosity, or carry report…’:
Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.
Via Negativa R.S. Thomas (1913–2000)
The Resurrection of Jesus was only slowly realised by the disciples. The Gospel of Mark, which we have been following this year is known to be full of their misunderstandings. The disciples are not learned men. They struggle with their own intelligences and partial understandings. But the Gospel writer is able in this way to make a larger point about the nature of human perception itself. The point is that faith in Christ may be asserted only in relationship to its being something which unfolds as it is revealed to us. It is never the finished article or a final statement. It grows and develops and may in the right circumstances grow deeper and more mature. More vision and trust may be granted. It takes a while for us to come to the fuller realisation and understanding of all the things which have taken place. The fact of the resurrection is not just a romantic adjunct to the life and death of Jesus. It is the arrival at an understanding of the identity of Jesus in all its fullness. The brief and pithy dialogue between Jesus and Thomas tells us that Jesus is a truth that can only be apprehended by faith. After all, the new relationship which the Resurrection has founded is the one in which Jesus of Nazareth, the rabbi and teacher, the healer, the worker of miracles, the one who died that shameful death on the cross is now risen from the dead! He has become for Thomas and for Christians for all time, “Lord and God!” Remember that it was Mary Magdalene and not one of the twelve disciples who witnessed the Resurrection. Remember too that Thomas was not before this incident a witness to the Resurrection. John tells us that he believed only on outward evidence, the witness of his own eyes; but my understanding is that this was witness to something he had known all along. He was like us only too human…
In the final analysis, an understanding of the Christian faith does not rest on belief and doubt in a theory. It is not about supposition but about reality. It is about us and what we are and why we are alive and what we are doing with our lives and whether we are becoming what we were made to be and whether we acknowledge that we are chosen and cherished by a loving Maker, who has sent his son to live among us, to die for us and to raise us to new life. This is the belief that the Christian risks. The risk as I say to myself, ‘Let me go with him, that I might die with him”. Let us go, anyway. There is nothing to fear. God has already taken the initiative. He has made his choice and we are now to make ours. But with the caveat that we are not to doubt but only believe.
“Long before any human being saw us, we are seen by God's loving eyes. Long before anyone heard us cry or laugh, we are heard by our God who is all ears for us. Long before any person spoke to us in this world, we are spoken to by the voice of eternal love.” Claiming and reclaiming our chosenness is the great spiritual battle of our lives, for in a competitive, power-hungry and manipulative world, it is all too easy to forget that God has always known us, and God has chosen us – even when we slide into self-doubt and self-rejection. Knowing that we have been and are known by God, and that we have been chosen, is the first thing we need to claim as we behold what we are and become what we receive in Him.
Sermon for the Easter Vigil
4th Apr 2015
Sermon for the Easter Vigil
‘What a difference a day makes’ We might say as we come to this glorious Easter time. Within the space of three days, everything for the Christian Church changes. And in the passing of this brief period of time - of Holy Week and now of Easter, the Church has endured the pain of death in the deep solemnity of Passiontide and now all is transformed. The Church’s proclamation proceeds out of the death of Christ, and through his Glorious Resurrection we proclaim new life to the world. It has all been encapsulated into one week, and the saving events into three days, and now the day of Resurrection comes…
The days we have lived through cannot be experienced separately but together; as one stream. The life that Easter makes possible, is brought to us as a flame, flickering delicately, The Light of the Risen Christ proclaimed as “Christ our Light” and then acknowledged and honored in the glorious Easter song ‘The Exsultet’.
Then there is a Liturgy of the Word for the recapitulation of Christian Faith; the tracing of its origins. It begins with The Creation Narrative in Genesis, and then proceeds to the Exodus and Abraham and then the promise of the coming of the One who will promise us the God not our of religious duty alone, but his own being from the communication of one heart speaking to another. This Easter Liturgy will be a profound celebration of the sacramental life that God has granted us through the blessing of the font, of the baptismal water and of the renewal of our baptismal vows. Everything is to find its renewal through the grace which is Easter. We then celebrate the Eucharist, dominated by the presence of the great Easter candle, which is now become ‘Christ our Light’. The whole effect is enriching and transformative.
I was in Waitrose this afternoon and saw the sad sight of the Easter eggs which were becoming too difficult to be sold. They sat on the shelves, forlorn, with their expensive price tickets waiting to suffer the ignominy of being reduced by half, or even more when the supermarket’s ‘Easter effect’, marketed since the end of February, becomes redundant. We live in a supermarket economy in which sell-by dates mix with sales trends and Waitrose’s own seamless thread which runs both vaguely with and absurdly counter to the church calendar – how else can we explain the fact of hot cross buns sold in Marks and Spencer’s at Christmastime? In the popular mind’s eye, very little would be known about Maundy Thursday or Good Friday except as adjuncts to Easter. Easter-time stretches out for weeks. Lent is passed by, forgotten; after all how do you market Lent?
For Christians this is very strange. For this is the most important time of the Christian Year, one in which Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday are each and alone significant. Each belong to one another, and they all belong to that part of The Church’s life which places a premium on the hallowing of time. The Church allows us to inhabit time with profound consciousness. It commemorates and celebrates and marks time. And at this time for the Church there is the concentration upon so many different parts of our lives with the life and death and resurrection of Christ. The passing of time is not made without its being offered to God in and through his Son. And this for the Church is, in the words of The Bishop of London, proves ‘deeply inspiriting’. It is life-giving and is a way of living the Resurrection in the present and in the time to come. And so we don’t speak of the ‘Easter Effect’ or ‘The Easter Experience’ without it’s having been written on our hearts and alive in our witness to the saving events of the Christian faith.. We then become those same witnesses to the resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ who rushed to the tomb. We become the ones who must now proclaim and share this message as a message of life and of hope in the discovery that he has risen.
The contrary movement is the experience of an Easter Bank Holiday with the true Easter taken out, and we return to our unsold but expensive eggs! We see a society which no longer memorizes a calendar which allows for Easter as the time of Resurrection and as the one which is the holder of new life and a deeper, richer sense of the presence and purposes of God. ‘On the third day he rose again from the dead’ we say in the Creed. It has been important to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus in and through his preceding death. The angel provides the vital message not only to the followers of Jesus then but to our world now:
Why seek the dead among the living? He is not dead. He has risen, as he said he would. Go therefore to Galilee where you will find him’.
We can value the Christian manner of time-keeping as it draws us more surely into The Holy Time of Easter, which has proceeded out of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not by accident, but in and through time – the same time frame that we inhabit. The joyful message of Easter is that God’s time and our time have become everlastingly one.
Now, in Christ, our hearts beat as one!
Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, alpha and omega, all time belongs to him, and all ages; to him be glory and power, through every age and for ever.
Sermon for Good Friday
3rd Apr 2015
Holy Cross, Cromer Street.
I well remember as a boy that the Mass contained one expression in the Creed which then and even now never ceases to shock me. It is an expression which unnerves the believer and sticks in the gullet, for it is the one which says that Jesus ‘descended into hell’. However this expression is qualified by the Resurrection, the fact of the descent into hell is given to us as the mark and purpose of Good Friday. And it relates most closely to that has been called the awful particularity of the Cross. God has sent his beloved Son into the world to die for the world as the world is, and as we are. To enter completely into the human condition is for Christ to take it all upon himself. To take it into himself, into his heart and to offer it back as love from the place of his own death, a death which is ‘freely accepted’. This is an action which involves a ‘descent into hell’ and the scope of this action is all-encompassing and all embracing.
The dying body of Christ on the Cross is being shown to the world today as both a spiritual lightening conductor and as ‘the eye of the storm’. The body of Christ on the Cross is to be the instrument which for Orthodox Christians brings about ‘the harrowing of hell’. The Cross is a force field into which all human sin and all human hope and longing is drawn into the body of Christ, like a lightening conductor. This body draws everything into itself as darkness covers the face of the whole earth, as lightening strikes, and as the veil of the Temple is torn in two. The body of Christ can draw all the world’s pain into itself because within the sacred heart of the dying Jesus lies God himself, the Creator of all things and perfect love, which exists in the middle of the violence of the crucifixion as the eye of the storm, the place of perfect, God-centred stillness out of which his love flows. This is the harrowing of hell.
And so we are led to see that the death of Christ has a vast scope of cosmic significance. It could never be cosmetic. “God so loved the world that he gave us his only begotten Son so that anyone who believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life”. The sacrifice of God, if it is to be cosmic rather than cosmetic, must take all things into itself to issue in a complete outpouring of everlasting love. And so there is something mighty that is happening here. There is something which is being fought for us and won for us by Christ on our behalf. There is something worth living and dying for here…
When at school I could never really grasp the laws of science. One of my reports for physics reads ‘Christopher just doesn’t have a scientific mind’. It’s just that I couldn’t connect up scientific laws and principles with the realities of my existence, which were no larger or more narrow than most boys, but which were bound up with the Church and the glimmerings of a Christian Faith and a wandering, romantic imagination. But I did learn a basic bit of science which informs and enriches the realities around which people relate to one another. And it is contained in Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion “To each and every force (or gesture or action) there is an equal and opposite reaction”. If we translate this scientific law into our understanding of the Sacrificial death of Christ on the Cross we are to say that above and before all else it is an action which proceeds out of God’s love for us. And as perfect love is offered to a fallen, ambivolent world the reaction it creates is at best a variable one, or as Newton might have said ,‘something like equal and very often opposite’. The Grand Inquisitor: “You loved us too much and you gave us too much freedom” Dostoevsky.
The risk for the issuing of love toward a person or persons hurt and defended from being loved is that it will result not in acceptance but in defensive anger, resentment and an acting out of that anger in ways which turn out to be spiteful or mean or merely obtuse. Or the response may just be a numb one. Those parts of our nature which have not been loved cry out, perhaps silently, for a healing of the past, a healing of minds and hearts and memories.
Always the same hills
Crowd the horizon
Of the still scene.
And in the foreground
The tall Cross
Aches for the Body
That is back in the cradle
Of a maid’s arms.
RS Thomas The Pièta.
We come before God wounded, vulnerable and broken. That is our Cross. And it is Christ, who lies before us in this church dedicated to the Holy Cross who tells us this. And the teaching we receive from the Cross is the teaching that issues out of Christ’s own manner of living and dying, as the Letter to the Hebrews informs us: “…during his life on earth, Jesus offered up prayer and entreaty, aloud and in silent tears, to the one who had the power to save him out of death, and he submitted so humbly that his prayer was heard”.
We all have our crosses to bear and they are not little ones. We are cross bearers too. Many people come to this church in King’s Cross defeated by addiction to alcohol. One of these visitors said to me that she had come into this church because prompted. For out of all her suffering came a prayer, which appeared out of apparently nowhere. It was one which told her that something that to give, something had to be done. But this prospect was awful because with it the terrible realisation of all that had gone before and what had brought her to this place. But she came into church as many at rock bottom do – to come to a place of seeming truth. And her coming into this church and the sense of communion with God had both addressed and exacerbated the pain. This is the scope of the Cross. ‘It is after all a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Terrible, because all is caught up in God, even and especially when no easy resolution lies in sight…life as unfinished business, the painful waiting for a deliverance which lies beyond immediate reach, the pain of remaining where we are in the midst of so much that is intractible and insoluable with the possibility of the healing of past hurts and their memories… This is a veritable Cross.
But it is not the end of the matter. The Cross holds out the possibility of what lies beyond it. In the Cross lies the world’s turmoil held within the place of unconditional and inexhaustible love. This is the eye of the storm, the place of healing power and the Divine stillness, the arrival at the place of truer witness. This is the lightening conductor through which the pain of this world’s ransoming is held and channelled. All is being drawn into the Cross as he said “When I am lifted up I shall draw all things to myself”. We are to bear the Cross as the Cross bears us, for in it the promised Resurrection to new life is already being made.
Sermon for Maundy Thursday
2nd Apr 2015
Unless I wash you, you have no share in me
On this Maundy Thursday night we experience Jesus’ ministry in the raw. Nothing can disguise the fact that what at first looks like an ordinary domestic scene; the scene of the Last Supper, is fraught with tension. The very name ‘Last Supper’ sounds ominous, and it is. It foretells an ending; a death; Jesus’ death, but not yet. It foretells the betrayal by Judas. It takes place in a room that has, Luke mysteriously tells us, already been prepared. The supper itself is preceded by foot washing and then the words of Jesus over the bread and wine ‘This is my body’; ‘This is my blood’. Jesus’ words and gestures all point to a future for which the disciples are unprepared, for they, despite Peter’s pleas, are to desert Jesus in his greatest hour of need. Jesus’ words are also foreboding, because they speak from the point view of a world which will never be the same again. Everything in this Gospel reading is both as it should be and yet it is ominous, and then there is in the Maundy Thursday liturgy the sense of disorientation and then reorientation as tonight’s solemn celebration (yes, celebration) of the Holy Eucharist is followed by the stripping of the Church which speaks to us of a loss and a dereliction. The reorientation that we undergo is the one that takes us from the strange and temporary safety of the upper room to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus sweats blood and suffers the agony of his destiny and the falling away of the disciples. The sharing of the supper, with its foot-washing and eating, is soon overshadowed as Jesus prepares to accept his own death in the agony of the Garden of Getshemane. And what intensifies this is in the Gospel is the confident assertion that all these apparently disconnected and ominous signs all happen to fulfil the Father’s will. John tells us that Jesus knows that the Father “had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going (back) to God’ (John 13.3a). And we are to witness these things as we are invited to watch and wait ‘til midnight, when we enter upon Good Friday.
How can it be possible for us to reconcile the terribleness and randomness of human fate, and our fate in particular, with God the Father, who knows it all before it comes to be? How can it be possible that the love of God in Jesus Christ reveals itself as simply and as intimately as in the washing of feet? Can we bear to allow God to get that close to us? Can we bear to accept that God loves us at such close range and so intimately? The washing of the feet is done as Jesus comes to heal the neglected, the embarassed, the shameful, the barricaded and the lost parts of our nature. As our servant Jesus humbles himself and is ready to don the apron, to carry the bowl and jug and to serve us as we are to serve one another. He pours the cleansing and tactile waters of his healing over those parts of our human nature that have become ingrown and hardened and fatalistic. All things, on this Maundy Thursday evening, orientate us towards both the cost and the purpose of Christ’s sacrificial love. But equally, they invite us to accept the awkward fact that Jesus wishes to serve us and our needs before ever we rush to serve him. At the heart of human confusion, the love of God remains, immoveable, unshakeable, purposeful and everlasting. This is what makes sense of the chaos of Maundy Thursday.
But for now, for tonight, all this must be put on hold. It will be enough to echo the words of doubting Thomas,
Let us also go (with him), that we may die with him. John 11.16.