Sermon for The Fourth Sunday of Epiphany

27th Jan 2013


The Fourth Sunday of Epiphany Year C

 

He rolled back the scroll, gave it to the assistant and sat down. And all eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to speak to them “Today in your hearing this text has been fulfilled”.  Luke 4.21

 

 Our three readings all ‘read into’ one another. The Old Testament Reading (Nehemiah 8.2-6,8-10) and Gospel Reading tell us of the awe and of the wonder associated with sacred scripture. When Jesus reads the text out of the scroll and of bringing ‘Good News to the poor’ he is speaking as the Messiah, the chosen one. He declares that in his own being this piece of scripture has been fulfilled. St Luke adds two lovely details, of how he handed back the scroll to the assistant, and of how ‘all eyes were fixed on him’. We see this piece of scripture as an unfolding drama.  In Jesus, what had formerly been written as sacred now stands before them as the real thing and as their Messiah. But there is more. There is the fact of what the Messiah has come to bring : Good News to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the downtrodden. Our second reading from St Paul (1 Corinthians 12.12-31) advances the idea of a church as ‘The Body of Christ’, which though having many parts, is not a disparate community but is actual the physical embodiment of Christ who is for the Church its source of life, its embodiment and its beating heart.  It is in this respect that Christ ringing declaration of himself as ‘fulfiller of the past’ is now made present before their eyes as he is present for us in the Church.

 

Fulfiller of the past,
Promise of things to be,
We hail Thy body glorified
And our redemption see.  (From ‘Tis Good Lord to be Here’)

 

Christ has no body now but yours
No hands, no feet on earth but yours
Yours are the eyes through which He looks
compassion on this world
                              Christ has no body now on earth but yours.     St Teresa of Avila

 

It is important firstly that we understand the age-old importance attached to the written word, and of the importance associated with sacred scripture as containing the  ‘proof’ texts' for the believing community. This remains true for the three great mono theistic religions – Judaism (The Torah) Christianity (The Bible) and Islam (The Koran). All exist as religions of the Book. And the texts that lie within them are deemed sacred, holy and inviolable, even though they may come under scrutiny and interpretation from theologians and the faithful. And we have examples of how these texts are rendered truly precious in the Book of Kells, and in the beautiful calligraphy that decorates some of the world’s most famous mosques, and of the Jewish Torah still housed in beautifully decorated scrolls of parchment.

 

In this church, the whole first third of the Mass is taken up with that is called ‘The Ministry of the Word’, at whose heart lies this sermon but more formally our three readings from scripture, which enjoy an ascending hierarchy, from the Old to the New Testament, and then to the Gospel Reading, containing the words of Christ himself. This reading is given greatest importance, having its own organ fanfare, a procession with candles with the Gospel Book held aloft both at the beginning of this service and before the Gospel is read. The Gospel book is censed and alleluyas sung in its presence. In liturgical terms the Gospel reading is designed to emerge out of the Mass like the tolling of a bell. The Gospel is a ringing declaration of God’s purposes, just as it was in that synagogue so long ago. In our Gospel Reading all eyes are ordered to turn toward the Book even as they were turned to Christ in the synagogue. Only now the text from the Gospel reading is to be fulfilled in our presence once more. It is to find its fulcilment in our own Christian living as a response to the holy scripture we hear in this Holy Eucharist.

 

In this way, The Holy Gospel reading from St Luke takes us in Jesus Christ from TEXT to CONTEXT. The scriptural texts and The Gospel Readings are not there for their beauty and instructional value alone. They are read solemnly and with fanfare because they are to awaken us to the realties that face us in the current time. Scripture texts are there to be ‘fulfilled’ and to be ‘revealed’ as new life.

 

The Collect for Advent (From The Book of Common Prayer):

 

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

Do we read the Bible as though it mattered to us and to our lives? The Reading of Scripture has been described as ‘Lectio Divina’ ‘Divine Reading’, but this is not like reading a newspaper or a novel. This is reading as prayer and contemplation, in which words and phrases become infused with the divine. It is through our reading of scripture, and in its ‘inward digesting’ that we become alive to the truth that would both grant us wisdom and at the same time set us free. In such a way, scripture can and has surely been fulfilled in our presence?

 

This week I have been sharing some teaching with children from Year 4 (eight year olds) at Argyle School. We were talking about the miracles of Jesus. We shared examples of perhaps smaller miracles that we had experienced in our own lives. Two of the children spoke of relatives who had been very sick and had come back to life and of happenings which had been astonishing and significant. Their contributions were very heartfelt and descriptive. It was soon evident that we were sharing our experiences of these things within the divine perspective. We were speaking of things which were powerful and memorable and resonant. One child said that miracles happened especially when you prayed. I realised that though we were from differing religious backgrounds, nevertheless our way of describing realities emerged out of a shared wonder at the being and presence of God and of the life of prayer. It was as though in the wonder and the depth of our conversations, the ancient texts concerning the life and presence of God were being fulfilled in our midst. Christ was present to us in a way he had not been before. Now he was recogniseable. Right before our very eyes!



The Wedding Feast at Cana

20th Jan 2013


Epiphany 3 

 

The Wedding feast at Cana.

 

Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory. John 2.11 

 

This holy season of Epiphany contains a natural kind of exuberance, like the bubbles in a glass of champagne. For Epiphany is the coming into being of Christ as the glorious manifestation of power and presence. Outward and seemingly ordinary events become charged with the presence of the Creator God and burst into life. The Baptism of Christ which we observed last week was accompanied by the opening of the heavens and the voice of God crying ‘This is my Son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased’. We understand the Season of Epiphany as the beginning of several epiphanies or glorious manifestations. The coming of Jesus Christ as our Saviour has its own unstoppable momentum,

 

You go to my head,

And you linger like a haunting refrain

And I find you spinning round in my brain

Like the bubbles in a glass of champagne.       Writers Teddy Randazzo, Bobby Weinstein.

 

You may think this champagne image a bit frivolous, until you realise that today’s Epiphany happening, the turning of the water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana, is the first of Christ’s miracles. And because it is the first miracle it has great significance for the Christian Church in the manifestation of God’s glory. It comes to us in the writing of Archbishop Michael Ramsey:

 

The glory of God is the living man

And the life of man is the vision of God. 

 

St Irenaus, inscribed on Archbishop Ramsey’s gravestone.

 

Christ’s life is to be our example, and it is to be a life lived to the full, brimmed full of expensive and exuberant love. It is a life of intimate connectedness and friendship and personal understanding and generosity. And this is revealed, sensationally, at the Cana wedding feast in the miraculous supply of wine. This is Christ’s epiphany as loving provider and life giver, or in the words of one of modern hymns, as ‘The Lord of the Dance’. “I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be, and I’ll lead you all in the dance,” said he... The psalmist puts it in more elevated terms when he says “With you, O God is the fountain of life, and by your light we see light”. (36, 7b,8). God is the fountain of life and the waters of life dance to the tune of his voice. He is, before all else, a life giver.

 

Parties of whatever kind, and specially wedding parties, where members of different families are meeting in an intimate atmosphere as strangers, need some social ‘oiling’ to get them going.  In one of Alan Bennett’s plays, ‘Single Spies’, none other than our Queen Elizabeth II is featured, and we overhear a conversation that she’s having with the curator of her paintings. ‘Of course’ she says dryly, ‘When I meet people they’re always on their best behaviour, and when people are at their best they are invariable at their worst, and this is so fatiguing...’ The provision of good wine or drink is both an emollient, an ice-breaker, and also an act of celebration in itself, a toast to the bride and groom.

 

In the wedding feast at Cana, we are being given us a foretaste of the life that he has come to bring. His ministry is to be intimately bound up with the lives of those around him, and he is to promise his followers as he promises us in this Eucharist, not just life, but life in its fullness. His and our cup of life through the Holy Spirit is to run over, and promise deep and unspeakable joy.

 

In Christ we have fullness of experience at the earthly level. The fount of life is also the God who refreshes us within the very heart of ourselves, and warms our hearts with his gracious and generous love. There is no part of our lives that cannot be loved back into union with ourselves, with others and with God. However stubbornly we play dead with those parts of our nature that need healing, God beckons us into loving union with him through the life of his Church. This is why the Church has been referred to as ‘the bride of Christ’ : The Wedding Feast at Cana speaks of Christ’s willingness to espouse his ministry to the guests then and to us now, as he calls you and I into union with our maker. The only joy worth having is the joy of union with the Creator, and not with artificial substitutes.

 

Christ meets us and we meet him in this Eucharist, and as we say our prayers to God here and elsewhere and as we continue our journey in the Christian Faith, and as we encounter God here we become aware too that there is a joy to be experienced which lies beyond momentary pleasure or satisfaction. There is a life to be lived which takes us beyond existence for its own sake. We have, after all come to church because we know that this deeper, richer seam of life is available to us in the worship of the Church and in union with Christ. We are living not for ourselves alone but for him who gave himself for us. For Him who reconnects us and our lives with our Maker. With him who, even though we still have to struggle with all that life throws at us, nonetheless is our ’all in all’.. It is in Christ that God can, in us, accomplish more than we can imagine or ask. And the sign that this joy, this glory, is present, is a sure one.  As Isaiah says to us in this morning’s OT reading, “As the bridegroom rejoices in the bride, so God will rejoice in you”. (62.5).  

 

But in the meantime we struggle with what we have to bear in the knowledge and good purposes of his grace...

 

Some words of Archbishop Michael Ramsey, scribbled in note form on the days leading up to his ordination to the priesthood in 1929:

 

‘My grace is sufficient for thee’. How do I need to look away

From self to God; I can only find satisfaction in Him.

My heart to love Him; my will to do His will;

My mind to glorify Him; my tongue to speak to Him and of Him;

My eyes to see Him in all things;

My hands to bring whatever they touch to Him;

My all only to be a real ‘all’, because it is joined in Him.

And this will be utter joy – no man can take it away.

Self, self-consciousness, self-will, the self-centre cut away,

So that the centre which holds all my parts is God.



The Baptism of Christ

13th Jan 2013


Sermon for the Feast of the Baptism of Christ

January 2013 (Year C)

 

“The Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, like a dove”  Luke 3.21.

 

It was Harold Wilson, former British Prime-Minister, who coined the phrase ‘a week is a long time in politics’ . We might equally say this of the season of Epiphany. Last week we learnt of the appearance of the three wise men and the revelation of Jesus as the manifestation of God’s glory to the nations. Things still felt rather ‘Christmassy’ then. But now, within the space of a week, all is changed. A very long time, thirty years have passed, as we witness the Baptism of the adult Christ and the inauguration of his ministry. The change is very abrupt and perplexing. In the Christian Church, we come to understand this change as the necessary outcome of the Epiphany. The appearance, the manifestation of Jesus, leaves no time for further star-gazing. It’s now a case of ‘first things first’ The Gospel writer Luke makes it clear that Baptism is what comes first. Mark’s account of Jesus’ Baptism has him coming out of the waters and of the Holy Spirit coming upon him. But for Luke, this morning’s Gospel has the Holy Spirit descending not only upon Jesus but also upon others after all had been baptised. This is a very significant emphasis because in Baptism it places both us and Jesus at the one singular moment of destiny. This is profound Church teaching. It tells us that we are Baptised not only for ourselves and our lives alone but in the life and death of Jesus Christ. Baptism was the beginning point of Jesus' ministry just as it is the beginning point for our Christian identity. 

 

One of the most beautiful paintings in the world is hung at The National Gallery here in London. It is Piero della Francesca’s ‘Baptism of Christ’, painted in about the year 1448. The painting is not at all straightforward, and we see that the Baptism does not take place in first century Palestine but as depicted in fifteenth century Italy and surrounded by  high and verdant Tuscan hills, with a small town, San Sepulcro, in the background. Baptism is always contemporaneous. The painter Piero was interested in placing his figures in a strict geometry and we see that John the Baptist is painted with his right arm and left leg balanced precariously over the waters. In doing this the painting shows us lines of energy which run from the water through the Baptist, who acts both as a bridge and a conduit through which the life-giving waters convey a Christ whose body is dazzling white. John's precarious balance allows us to see that the step beyond the water is the one which takes us in a new direction. The comparison with Neil Armstrong’s ‘one small step for a man, but a giant leap forward for mankind’ is apt. The action is immediate and urgent and specific.

 

How is our own Baptism to be known and expressed? The first observation is that our life is no longer ‘any old life’. Great grace was given in our Baptism and in the blessing with water came the mark and a seal of the Holy Spirit. Now we come to see our lives in the light of Christ. In St Paul’s phrase we are for all time ‘in’ Christ. What is being asked of us is not that we strive for a whole lot of impossible perfections, but that, in the ordinary course of our lives we go on in a loyal way, and within the confines of our own particular lives and their demands, do our own bit in the way of being generous and helpful, listening and praying and aiming to stay true to the Jesus who is the patterning for our lives. But of course the great danger is that we fall into a complacent notion of what constitutes the Christian life 'so long as it doesn't get in our way'. To counter this, the Baptism of Christ, coming as it does so abruptly, coming as it does as a kind of intrusion, keeps that tension with the ‘quantum leap forward’ or ‘the leap of faith' which it signifies. For we are Baptised into Christ’s death. The waters are the waters of a kind of descent into hell.The re-emergent self is the one which is now readied, in the ordinary things of life and in the emergencies to come, to own that, whatever may befall us, ‘we will be true to thee ‘til death’. This is quite a pledge, this pledge of our Baptism. It might well require of us great reserves of spiritual resource and courage. Here are some words from The Rev’d Prof. Leslie Houlden:

 

The explosion that was Jesus’ coming and being among us echoes still – and echo it must for each of us:  not just rubber-stamping the way we are, but disturbing us and forming us more and more, with sensitivity and love, and with revolution when the need arises.

 

I think it is very hard to combine a sense of that need with the inevitable routine that dominates most of our lives:  how to know in the ordinary and how to be stirred amid the humdrum.  We need imagination and we need deliberate attention to God and to the figure of Jesus in his crisis-filled manner of life, if we are to keep the spark of faith alive within us at more than a formal level – like a pan of water for ever just simmering!  Jesus’ baptism holds us to the sense of crisis – which he held to the end.

 

We have opportunity at this time of the year to do something to show our Baptismal loyalty to Christ. The first is to sign up to help cook breakfasts for the Camden Cold Weather Night Shelter. The second is to consider coming to one of the acts of worship for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The Third is to go away and to pray and ask God whether there is a person or a situation at this time that needs you to show an active love. Your prayer will tell you who this is and what you can do. The explosion that Prof Houlden speaks is the one which has us live as agents of transforming love. The breakthrough must surely come each day as our prayer, our consciousness of God, re-awakens in us an active expression of his being.

 

The abruptness of the Baptism of Christ is the reminder we need that this Epiphany glory is not one of tinsel, but of the care of hearts and minds and bodies and souls.

 

TS Eliot reminds us that this is immediate. He knows it just as Luke and Piero also knew it.

 

 

“The dove descending breaks the air

With flame of incandescent terror

Of which the tongues declare

The one discharge from sin and error.

The only hope, or else despair

Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-

To be redeemed from fire by fire.

 

Who then devised the torment? Love.

Love is the unfamiliar Name

Behind the hands that wove

The intolerable shirt of flame

Which human power cannot remove.

We only live, only suspire

Consumed by either fire or fire.”

 

 

― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets.



Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany

6th Jan 2013


Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany 2013 (Year C)

 

 

 

We returned to our places, these kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

 

TS Eliot The Journey of the Magi.

 

 

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, and this word is taken from the Greek word epiphanos, and it has two meanings. The first of these speaks of ‘a sign’. The sign is something shown, a manifestation of something new and startling. It is revealed in the birth of the Messiah, which summons our three wise men to find the sign which had been promised by Isaiah and announced by the angel Gabriel; of the appearance of the longed-for Messiah as a baby, “wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a manger”:

 

The heavenly babe you there shall find

To human view displayed,

All meanly wrapped in swaddling bands

and in a manger laid.

 

The appearance of the infant Christ provides a second epiphany. This is the epiphany of conversion as a sudden and new perception of realities. It is what Eliot means when he tells us that the wise men returned to their places "no longer at ease in the old dispensation".  It tells us of the renewing effect that the showing of the sign has upon those who witness it.

 

Fear not to enter his courts in the slenderness

of the poor wealth thou wouldst reckon as thine

Truth in its beauty and love in its tenderness

these are the offerings to lay on his shrine.

 

Epiphany calls us to true and undiluted worship of our Saviour.  The Magi travelled from afar in search of the truth. When they found that truth in Jesus, they were bowled over by it.  Their lives were changed.  A very early Christian wall painting shows the three Magi walking towards Christ and His Mother as though they are in fact dancing in perfect synchronisation.  The clue to its understanding is the fact that it is painted on the walls of a catacomb, the place where early Christians buried their dead.  In this setting, we are walking not towards Bethlehem but rather towards Jesus the Lord who will come one day to judge both the living and the dead. If that is so, then you and I must walk both with eagerness and with integrity.  You and I must offer lives that are shaped by our quest, by the grace of the Lord Jesus whom we serve and to whom we come. And we must respect what we believe to be our Christian vocation and not betray its importance. Our  lives must find their expression rather as a dance in sychronicity and in step with the One who keeps time... 

 

Just as the magi travelled from afar to see the Sign, we too follow that same journey in our own Christian lives. It is the journey we make in our hearts to the place where we see and we know Jesus and where we bear witness. We may, out of the joy and the peace of his appearing, offer him the best gift we have to give, the gift of ourselves and of our own being and of the deepening of our witness.  To speak like this is to speak of the Feast of the Epiphany not only as a Feast of Signs but as a time and a place in which the divine presence is revealed to us as something vitally necessary for us.

 

The Story of the Three Wise Men is not just one which has been ‘tagged’ onto the Nativity for extra effect. It is has a crucial significance in the message of the coming of the Son of God. We continue to remember that the divine name given to Jesus is ‘God with Us’. His coming to birth has caused a rupture in Eliot's ‘old dispensation’. It has challenged the fixed separation of heaven and earth; and of the existence of God and his relation to us as remote. God has in Jesus come to us in flesh and blood, has come to us as a pauper child, has come through his life on earth to raise us all into the likeness of God Himself. We are to respond as did the wise men:

 

O Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness;

Bow down before him, his glory proclaim;

With gold of obedience and incense of lowliness

Kneel and adore him; the Lord is his Name!"

 

J S B Monsell (1811-1875). 

 



 

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