Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter
30th Apr 2017
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter
The Supper at Emmaus allows us to see the emergent Christian Faith and its relationship to past scripture, to the physical appearance of Christ. Jesus is disclosed as ‘God’s presence and his very self and essence all divine’ as he becomes known in the breaking of the bread. The Dutch Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) was a visionary painter, able to see into the heart of our humanity, as is the case in his Supper at Emmaus (1648), now in the Louvre in Paris. He is able to convey so much more than a beautiful surface, but portrays an iner world, also.He does this, for instance, in his numerous self-portraits, leading us into a rich interiority of the person, delineating the many facets of his humanity at various stages of his life, the truth about himself, his pride, his humiliation, his humor, his sufferings, his compassion, his aging, his wisdom, his greatness, and his littleness. This marvellous gift of disclosing his own inner life can be seen in a self-portrait at Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath of Rembrandt just a year before his death. You can catch a 214 bus and go and see it for free!
So likewise the actor Anthony Hopkins in ‘The Remains of the Day’ can convey a raft of emotion in one gesture, one look. The meeting of the stranger on the Road to Emmaus is akin to Mary’s meeting with the gardener who happens to be Jesus. She recognizes Jesus as he calls her by name, here Jesus is recognized in the breaking of bread, and reminds us that it is in this same breaking of bread in the Eucharist that Jesus is to be truly known and in which his real presence is felt and known. We are taken to the heart of things.
But this movement is subtle and apprended by faith. It is astonishing that the two disciples who met the Lord on the road did not recognize Him, even when He explained the Scriptures to them for we learn that “…beginning with Moses and the prophets, he expounded to them in all the scriptures, the things that were concerning him.” (Lk. 24:27) Though in they realized only in retrospect that their hearts were burning, it was when “he took bread, and blessed, and broke, and gave it to them,” that their eyes were truly opened. This is the moment caught by Rembrandt. He helps us to see that the world of ordinary things is nonetheless shot through with the 'deeper' presence of God. This echoes the Letter to the Hebrews 11.1 and the telling description of faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen…” The account of the meeting of the stranger on the road to Emmaus allows us to see how subtle and delicate a flower Christian faith really is and that for it to be otherwise would make of it something too ready made, too sure of itself. But Faith, it is suggested, is to provide the bedrock for our witness in a challenging world. Faith must be tested; tested, sometimes to the very limit of its capacity to remain as such, and it is in this way that God is experienced not as a religious antidote to all that life throws at us but as the source of its very hope. For many this remains hidden from direct view and all too quickly unheeded and discounted. But Christ still summons; and faith in HIm still beckons...
In Rembrandt’s painting we see Christ in His infinite tenderness at a banquet of love and intimate communion with His disciples, as with eyes turned to heaven, He breaks the bread. The two disciples, in the company of an uncomprehending servant, are astonished, as Christ is revealed in such to them in such a way. He is not dead now. He is alive in a way they could never have imagined. A new kind of very immediate recognition is made possible.
Blessed John Henry Newman writes:
A thick black veil is spread between this world and the next… There is no access through it into the next world. In the Gospel this veil is not removed, but every now and then marvelous disclosures are made to us of what is behind it. At times we seem to catch a glimpse of a Form which we shall hereafter see face to face.”
Christ, the Light of the World, is radiant. In the painting, the luminous white table cloth, like an altar cloth, reflects His light. Rembrandt seems to be linking this scene to the mystery of the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor. In both there is a sudden revelation of His divinity in His humanity, and the disciples are amazed. “Their eyes were opened, and they knew him” (Lk. 24:33).
The breaking of the bread alludes to the Last Supper and to the great mystery of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the Mass. Soon (after the Ascension) they will no longer see Christ with their human eyes. Christ is teaching them: they must learn to recognize Him as we must learn to recognize him in his real presence both in the Eucharist and by natural extension in the world and in people around us. This is the Mystery of Faith. This lies at the heart of our witness, a witness both to what we see and know as well as a witness to a hope borne out of Jesus Christ our Lord, who has risen from the dead and now, as at Emmaus, beckon us into the new life that he has made possible.
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter
23rd Apr 2017
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter
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 dirty 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. In a fascinating detail, Jesus guides Thomas’ finger into the wound. The effect 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 Christ’s wound. The spiritual reality of the resurrection is to be experienced in the flesh. The Resurrection of Jesus presents for the mind of all of us a demanding level of understanding. In this context Thomas becomes the hero of the piece, for he echoes that all too human incredulity which invites ‘seeing and believing’. But Jesus will invite Thomas to a new kind of seeing. Jesus is the one who with guiding hand, allows us to see that the spiritual and the physical, the past and the present, are all things become one in him. As the hymn says ‘Only believe and thou shalt see, that Christ is all in all to thee’. But firm belief is not so easy.
Doubting Thomas was I think, always a believer. Several chapters earlier in John’s Gospel, when the news reaches the ears of Jesus that Lazarus is dead, Jesus speaks at first of Lazarus 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.'
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…’ RS Thomas sets before us the existence of faith and doubt as part of the one offering to God. This is his ‘Via Negativa’:
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 disciples were not learned men. They struggled with their own limited intelligence and partial understanding. Theirs was a ‘faith seeking understanding’ one which unfolded and gained strength as it was revealed to them and became real for them. Just like us, really. Faith is never the finished article or a final statement. It grows and develops. 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. 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 former rabbi and teacher, the healer, the worker of miracles, the one who died that shameful death on the cross is now (incredibly?) risen from the dead! He has become for Thomas and for Christians and for us for all time, “Lord and God!”. John tells us that he believed only on outward evidence, the witness of his own eyes and not by word of mouth, but my understanding is that he was a witness to something he had known all along.
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 may now say to myself, ‘Let me go with him, that I might die with him”. Let us go, then. There is nothing to fear. God has already taken the initiative. He has made his choice and we are now to make ours. We are not to doubt but only believe what we see with our own eyes and in the very depths of our being.
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, This 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 2017
15th Apr 2017
Sermon for Easter
‘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 has now utterly changed. And in the passing of this brief period of time - of Holy Week and now of Easter, the Church has endured the pain of Christ's death in the deep solemnity of Passiontide and now all is transformed. The Church’s Easter proclamation proceeds out of the Passion of Christ, and through his Resurrection we proclaim new life to the world. This is now become our glory. And our joyful cry is “Alleluya!”
Salvation has been encapsulated into one week; the saving events into three days, and now the day of Resurrection comes to us tonight to startle and amaze us and carry us ever forward. The days of Lent and Passiontide have come together as one stream, leading inexorably towards its Resurrection fulfilment. The life that Easter makes possible is tonight brought to us as a delicate flame, The Light of the Risen Christ proclaimed as “Christ our Light”, appears first as a small, flickering light in the church's darkness and is then acknowledged in the the singing of the ‘Exsultet’ as the living symbol of everlasting life..
The Vigil of Old Testament Readings is for the recapitulation of our Christian Faith; the tracing of our spiritual origins. It marks a slow progress. It begins with The Creation Narrative in Genesis, and then proceeds to Exodus, to the Crossing of the Red Sea and to the Valley of the Dry Bones and then to the promise of the coming of the One who will communicate to us as one heart speaking to another. We make ready for the Resurrected Christ in this way. We go backward and deep into the past to go forward. The resurrected life of Jesus Christ carries all before it! The Easter Liturgy becomes a profound celebration of the sacramental life that God has granted us through the blessing of the baptismal waters and of the renewal of our Baptismal vows. We are to discover Easter in the outpouring of Baptismal grace. Thus invigorated, we then come to celebrate the Easter Eucharist, warmed and inspired by the presence of the great Paschal Candle; ‘Christ our Light’.
I was in Waitrose this afternoon and saw the sad sight of Easter eggs that had become too difficult to be sell. They sat on their 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’ had become redundant. We live in a supermarket economy in which sell-by dates mix with sales trends and Waitrose’s marketting strategy which runs absurdly with and at variance to the Church's calendar. In the popular mind’s eye, not much is known about Maundy Thursday or Good Friday except as little known adjuncts to Easter. Lent is passed by, forgotten... after all how do you market Lent?
For Christians Holy Week and Easter is the significant, the profound time; one in which Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday each belong to one another. The Church allows us to inhabit these days of intense contemplation with a profound awareness and emotional experience of their truer, deeper meaning. The passing of this profound time is made in and through The Son's self-offering. It is experienced by the Church as (traumatic) kairos, God’s time, bristling like electricity, Alpha and Omega, our beginning and our end. Christians may not speak of an ‘Easter Effect’ or of ‘The Easter Experience’ without it’s having been ‘gone through’, lived, written on our hearts and made 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 and that life is now changed and transformed for good. We become like them witnesses to a world and to lives made new. As the hymn reminds us, Christ is Risen! We are Risen! We are become God's Easter people and 'Alleluya' is now our song!
The contrary movement lies in the ’emptying out’ of the true Easter, and of the return to our unsold but expensive eggs! We see a society which no longer relates Easter to Resurrection. ‘On the third day he rose again from the dead’ we say in the Creed. "All is made new in Him!"
We must proclaim this truth with our lives, as in the Exsultet, the song of praise to the Easter candle, Christian Faith is-with-us as a flame bravely burning, lit by Christ our morning star:
May this flame be found still burning
by the Morning Star:
the one Morning Star who never sets,
Christ your Son,
who, coming back from death's domain,
has shed his peaceful light on humanity,
and lives and reigns for ever and ever.
We value the Christian manner of time-keeping as it draws us more surely into Holy Easter, proceeding out of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not by accident, but in and through God’s own kairos, his time.
The joyful message of Easter is that now God’s time and our time have become everlastingly one and the same, and this is cause for Easter as the time of real and unspeakable joy.
Sermon for Good Friday 2017
14th Apr 2017
Good Friday Sermon 2017
This Good Friday morning, as I was walking my dog in Argyle Square, I passed alongside a group of men seated at one of the benches, drinking from a large brandy bottle which lay on the ground in front of them. One of the men greeted me and told me of how important it was to be a Christian and of how much he had learnt from his mother. He then proceeded to recite from memory whole chunks from St John’s Gospel and the words for Good Friday from John 3.16 “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoso believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life”. I was astonished and moved. I had only been listening earlier this morning on the radio the same words set to music for Stainer’s ‘Crucifixion’. God is reminding me and you on this Good Friday that he sent his Son to save the world and you and I as the world and you and I are found. He has not come to perfect the world but to save it.
Eternal God, in the Cross of Jesus Christ we see the cost of our sin and the depth of your love: in humble hope and fear may we place at his feet all that we have and all that we are, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Good Friday sees God’s love shown in giving his Son to a fallen and a largely ambivalent world. Christ dies in a Jerusalem swollen in population to ten times its normal size, and busy and preoccupied in coming to Jerusalem for the Passover. Nothing particularly new there, for even this morning as our Good Friday walk of witness wended its way around the King’s Cross churches, you passed working scaffolders, joggers, men delivering beer barrels, a boy practicing his basketball skills and a speeding ambulance passing by with screaming siren. Christ comes to us in the thick of life and speaks to us there. And in the crowd this morning, the crowd of Christians making this walk of witness were Christians who know all too well that if Christ is the God who dies for love of you and me he is the One who dies for all that we have to suffer and for all we have to understand and to bear, of all those things that have caused us pain and disappointment as well as those things which bring us that joyful and self-confident exuberance which we find when faith is refreshed from the stream of love which flows out of the Cross in blood and water. This morning the Good Friday King’s Cross Walk of Witness wended its way around the district as in a dance, where life and death and everything else in between finds a partnering of the ambivalent world with the passionate expression of faith, of the Jesus who gave himself not just for the Christian gathering, but also includes others in the dance, too, even those who feel they are on the outside looking in.
Good Friday takes us to a place in which we may know Christ only in the fact of his suffering and death. In this way is God leading us to know the Cross as a sign of contradiction and the confounding of expectations based on casual certainty or stubborn ambivalence. The Cross comes to shatter our illusions about a God we enjoy calling ‘The God of Love’ without responding to that love which ‘searches us out and knows us’. We believe that God meets us in his crucified Son at those times and in those situations in which life threatens we are tested to the uttermost. Christ reveals in his saving death the plain fact of our mortality with the accompanying fact of its beauty and tragedy all held in the one hope. It is God’s desire that we should be at one with Him, at one in our selves and at one in our world. The Cross surely beckons. It is God searching us out and knowing us at the deepest levels of our being. Here is a poem from Fr John Ball, former parish priest at Holy Cross which touches on these very elements of faith and struggle:
It is the holding together that is hard –
The resisting of the centrifugal forces
Acting on mind and heart
That break the tenuous links of thought and feeling.
And then there is the fear (which on black days
Transmutes itself into a dark seducer
Parodying hope) that the next revolution of the hand
Upon the sadly common clock
Will bring the final, the inoperable rupture,
and burst the dams of past
And future pains.
It is the holding you must help us in (O God):
We cannot enter heaven in fragments
The gates will not allow of that.
And you must give the means to keep it
If you love us, as I fear you do.
Father John Ball, Parish Priest, Holy Cross Church,
Curate and Vicar 1969-1977
The Spanish Mystic, St John of the Cross tells us that
“…we too must have our Cross as our beloved had his Cross until he died the death of love”.
St Paul was certain that to be Christian at all was to share a Cross with the One who dies on the Cross. His Christianity was also a longing,
That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death. Philippians 3.10
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 battered and bruised by life. 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 realization of all that had gone before and what had brought her to this place. The pain was numbing and deadening. But she came into church as many at rock bottom do – to come to a place of sanctuary with the promise of healing. And her coming into this church and the sense of communion with God had both helped and exacerbated the pain and the ever encroaching plague of hopelessness. 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 intractable and insoluble with the possibility of the healing of past hurts and their memories… This is a true Cross.
But this is not to be the end of the matter. The Cross is proclaimed sadly and yet joyfully, for it has become our true centre, the revelation of divine love, and the arrival at the place of truer witness. This is the Cross through which the pain of this world’s living and longing can be held and channeled and healed. 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. In this divine and human at-one-ness is the true ‘good’ which we celebrate and honor and mourn on Good Friday. This is the declaration of the man in Argyle Square this morning. The man who could proclaim the central message of Good Friday amid the fact of a life which remained so painful, so incomplete, so bewildering and so unresolved : the declaration in fact and in form of a true Cross, ever bounded by God’s real love for all of us.
We take the Cross of Cross into our hearts and lives on this solemn, holy day. May it be for us our life, our witness and our true hope, even unto our very own death.
Sermon for Maundy Thursday 2017
13th Apr 2017
Let us also go (with him), that we may die with him. John 11.16.
On this Maundy Thursday night we experience the final events of Jesus’ life as a 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 we witness tonight’s solemn celebration (yes, celebration) of the Holy Eucharist. The altar hangings are of white and they surpass the purpled hues of Lent and Passiontide. For even in the midst of his own harrowing Passion, Christ gives us the gift of the Holy Eucharist, the gift of Himself. This evening’s liturgy is therefore in part, one of thankfulness for this inestimable gift. The celebration of the Eucharist tonight is followed by the stripping of the Church and putting out of lights, and this speaks to us speaks to us of Christ’s final self-emptying and the accompanying sense of loss and a dereliction.
The reorientation that we undergo tonight 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 the falling away of the disciples and his betrayal by Judas. 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 and a renewed trust in the Father’s will in the matter of his own going unto death. There is in John’s Gospel the confident assertion that all these apparently disconnected and ominous signs form one single Gospel narrative, the narrative of Passion which is understood as the manifest expression of the Father’s will. For John The Father “had given all things into Jesus’ hands, for Jesus had come from God and was going (back) to God’ (John 13.3a). We are bidden to witness these things and to watch and wait through the hours ‘til midnight when the church is plunged into total darkness as 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 shameful, the barricaded and the lost parts of our nature. Just as the suffering servant Jesus humbles himself and is ready to serve us, so we are to learn to serve one another. Jesus pours the cleansing waters of his healing over those parts of our human nature that may have become ingrown and hardened and fatalistic or cynical. Tonight he beckons you and me into his necessary Passion, which will be for our soul’s salvation.
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.