Sermon for the Third Sunday of Epiphany
26th Jan 2014
Epiphany 3 (2014)
One thing I have asked of the Lord that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.
At the beginning of each year I go off to spend a few days in a monastery. It always feels like a good time to get away for a few days and to be quiet and get my head straight – it’s become for me a time of reflection, and a kind of spiritual detox after the rush and tear of the Christmas festivities. I used to visit a monastery, which is about two hours from London. It would always took me about a day before I could get quiet. To ‘centre down’ as they say. I would then begin to hear things that I don’t hear in my usual distracted state. I begin to see things a bit more clearly and notice things that would otherwise pass me by.
Life today, whether we live it alone or in family groups, with partners or friends, whether our lives are frantically busy or whether we spend time alone is said to be more stressful that it’s ever been. This stress can gnaw away at us, and sap our vital energies. The ‘phone might ring and it could as easily be a friend or loved one who is offering a welcome ‘hello’ or as possibly the offer to reconnect you to another gas supplier at a discount rate, or even perhaps a wrong number. A letter through the door might be sent with loving greetings or it might be another one of those letters offering you a platinum or diamond credit card, telling you that you have only to subscribe to Reader’s Digest and you could win a holiday for two in the Bahamas. All sorts of things can go wrong during the day and many of them are inescapable.
After my first day at the monastery this time I became aware not only of the quietness but also of the fine detail of my surroundings, and in particular of the way in which the monastery chapel is built. It’s actually only twenty years old but it resembles an old medieval barn; made entirely of wood. It has huge wooden oak beams and buttresses held together by wooden pegs which have been hammered in at strategic places. The whole structure has been made from seasoned and matured oak, which when originally used for building I’m told is really quite soft. It has to be weathered and is left out of doors for two or three years before it’s used. The oak is an organic material which expands and contracts with the atmosphere and then hardens, and then becomes very hard and becomes a tough skeleton that will is likely to last for centuries. I was reminded of the hymn to God as ‘the strength and stay upholding all creation’. The skeletal planks are held together and underpinned by flimsy little wooden pegs or wedges, and these are placed strategically where joints need to be secured. And these joints are more than capable of holding up and holding together the strong pressures and forces that push against them. Just like the human body. The apparent cracks that you see in the wood aren’t cracks at all but wooden stretch marks. This is a result of the building’s having expanded and contracted. It literally grows into its place. It lives!
That barn, that place of worship, was a visual sign for me for the existence of the Church as a body of faith and an organic whole. It was like an upturned boat or the inside of Jonah’s whale. What holds us together is the unity God gives us in this Holy Eucharist with the diversity and the particularity of our existences and our own loves. The Church is not just a secret sect, a holy club, a society of friends, or a company of religious junkies. We are the body of Christ, knit together, bonded and united and made into an organic whole in this celebration of Holy Communion as we are receive Christ under God’s roof. It is in the wholeness, the completeness of God that our lives find their wholeness and completeness. The Creator and the created (you and me) become one, and as this union is formed, as it is experienced in worship, so it allows the faith and hope and love in us to be built up, not withstanding the odd signs of wear and tear. This morning’s psalmist expresses this great movement as a prayer of desire, a desire that he live in the house of God all the days of his life. The poet William Blake puts in human and practical terms when he says, “We are put on this earth a little space to learn to bear the beams of love”.
In the middle of this service we share a sign of peace with one another, a greeting; usually a handshake, and this is begun when the priest says ‘We are the body of Christ. By one spirit we were all Baptized into one body. Let us endeavour to keep the unity of the Spirit in the Bond of Peace.’ This unity and these bonds are like those wooden pegs that hold the structure together, and we shake hands or sometimes wave if someone is marooned by the pews or even now and again there is a hug (or at the extreme end of things a peck on the cheek!). These are our signs of peace. Life today places us under inevitable and often great strain, and the reaching out, the offering of the hand in the sign of peace is an expression of solidarity with the those outside of yourself, the wider community, whose members who have all at some time or another suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and who are like you also ‘bearing the beams of love’. Commitment to the Christian community and the giving of the self that goes with it has brought great richness of experience and increase of love and enlightenment and peace in its wake. But crucially it celebrates and goes to the heart of life as it is lived. Christians aren’t idealists. This is the way of Christ. It is in his teaching. We are as a living Church his body on earth. We are ‘bearing the beams of love’.
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:
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,
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Epiphany
19th Jan 2014
“They said to him “Rabbi” (which translated means teacher), “Where are you staying?” He said to them “Come and see”. John 1.39
In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus beckons us find God in The Church both in its worship and in its people. The life of the Church is a shared destiny. This is the Christian adventure upon which we are all embarked, and which will be for the making of our lives. The tone of this morning’s Gospel is breathless and exciting and involves two encounters between John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. The pace of the narrative continually quickens itself, and makes the action appear something like a dance, in which the persons involved appear and disappear and then reappear, and in which they meet and then leave one another. But the mood of the piece is excited and joyous. The encounter with John the Baptist and Jesus is significant because it provides a marker for the end of one whole era and the beginning of another. John is the last of the Old Testament prophets. It is as though he is saying. ‘Prophecy has now completed its task'. 'The true and vital end of our prophecy is now with us. The Messiah, this Jesus, is the completion of our prophetic utterance’.
Much more than this, the Gospel writer John, as he describes this scene, realises what was so evident in the early Church. The Christian Faith, unlike the old faith, was one lived in mutual and shared witness. The faith of Christ was now to be one which was encountered radically, in the here and the now of our shared existence. It was to be conveyed to others by the faithful themselves. It was a sharing and a communication of that same Good News which gladdened the heart of John and his followers. They follow Jesus from a little distance and then ask him where he is staying? He answers them by not answering them. He doesn’t in fact tell them where he will stay, but instead invites them to “come and see”.
For John, the writer of this Gospel, this is the same beckoning gesture which the Church of the first century is offering to those who would come to Christian Faith. It is not the one which finds itself lost in explanation and fine religious detail. It is not one which is lost in exclamation and misplaced ecstasy. No, it is the one offering the invitation to find Christ in the Church, the Body of Christ, and to embark upon the faith in a spirit of adventure and anticipation. “Come and see” - find yourself in one another. I still find myself saying “come and see” to the many who wonder at this Church and make their own faint enquiries. I know I can’t describe the real Holy Cross Church as well as I can describe its history and architecture. But that’s as it should be. The invitation to “come and see” is as full of promise today here in this place as it was all those hundreds of years ago when the followers asked Jesus where he was staying. The invitation this extends is not one which is confident in the expectation of the Christian life as life transformed and enriched from its source, God in Christ.
In the past two weeks this Church has seen the funeral rites of two very different persons, Elsie and John. Elsie, a staunch believer in the Church and John, a complex character but no less staunch and no less colourful. The one service for Elsie, a Requiem Mass with all the music and liturgical grandeur we could muster, and then John’s very simple service. Elsie’s service with its traditional style and mellifluous Mass setting, and John’s Quaker hymn ‘Tis a Gift to be Simple’ and ending with Gene Kelly and ‘I’m Singin’ in the Rain’. Two quite different persons, but both loving the Church, and both giving and receiving from the Church’s treasure house, which is the faithful witness to one another and the one commitment that make The Church what she is. Of the sense of belonging to a community of incomplete persons. Both Elsie and John had this in common : they both had, in their own unique ways, come to the Church and to what they saw in the Church, as incarnate glory, as shared witness, as Christian companionship along the way, as walking along the road in their own natural freedom and in the company of church people as a great cloud of witnesses – They had both responded to the reply that Jesus makes to us in this morning's Gopel reading: “Come and See”. “Come and See” and what you will see and what you will know will be for your life’s sustenance and its true meaning and worth from this time forward and for ever more. This is the encounter with the living God.
Sermon for the Baptism of Christ
12th Jan 2014
The Baptism of Christ
I have endowed him with my Spirit. Isaiah 42.1-4, 6-7.
When we speak of a ‘Baptism of Fire’ we suggest an experience which is likely to demand a great deal and which will leave an indelible mark. It will mark a person and their life’s experience in a way which is likely to influence them once and for all. The origins of this expression are found in relation to martyrdom but came to refer to an initial experience of warfare. In a Baptism of Fire you definitely feel the heat! It is a fire which burns amid trials of many kinds, and after the burning something new may manifest itself. A Baptism of Fire might involve struggle and loss, and yet within all that there may emerge the promise of something re-made.
This is true of the Baptism of Christ. This morning we are ‘light years’ away from last Sunday’s glorious Bethlehem Epiphany. Christmas decorations have been put away, and now the Epiphany is the manifestation in Christ: not now of the manifestation of visible glory in the infant but of the graphic spelling out of His identity and destiny at the inauguration of his adult ministry. The Baptism of Jesus makes evident the intimate relation between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. The coming of Christ fulfils the identity of the Trinity and of its promise. And so John’s urgent explanations of his status in relation to Jesus are silenced. They are superceded in Jesus’ own submission to divine authority. It is fitting for Jesus to be Baptized by John not in order to proclaim a status but ‘to do what righteousness demands’. Now, obedience to the Father’s will is the identifying mark of Christ as Son of God, a name which naturally follows ‘Emmanuel – God with us’. As beloved Son of God, Jesus has a destiny to fulfil. His Baptism is to take him and us into the realm which plunges him into the true and original Baptism of Fire. This Baptism will be for the making of a new world.
Those who are baptized have disappeared under the surface of Christ's love and reappeared as different people. The waters close over their heads and then, like the old world rising out of the watery chaos in the first chapter of the Bible, out comes a new world.
Archbishop Rowan Williams Tokens of Trust, p.112.
And what of our Baptisms of Fire? Perhaps it is possible for us to identifdy those times in our lives when we have undergone a distinct and rigorous testing. We have ‘been through it’ as we say. And life still ‘puts us through it’ in many ways. While most of us would never voluntarily submit to any baptism of fire, we may recall past pain and difficulty, either in a distinct or indistinct manner. We may certainly own to bearing the scars or wounds of our more difficult experience. It is as though we have borne these things in the fierce heat of battle. We may occasionally smart from its reappearance in the present as an ‘old wound’. Perhaps only in retrospect do we feel ourselves to have survived, and all too often only ‘after a fashion’. We may regard these experiences as related in some sense to the persons we have become. The manner of our survival with the loss of something once held surer is now joined with the strong presentiment of what now remains true for us. This is a kind of truth which has become as it were our remains; or of WHAT remains. Or what remains of us… “With the breaking comes the re-making” said another Archbishop of Canterbury, Donald Coggan. This is no easy matter.
But it has been seen now as ‘the making of us’; the making of our truer identity. But this is of course not inevitable. We must use the means of grace to enjoy the hope of glory to come, which is our truer re-making in the divine image. By these means we may learn a new and joyful and liberating obedience in and for what we have always called ‘God’s good time’. And it is in the manner of our obedience that a truer peace may be found to exist after all. This has its showing for us this morning in the Christ who submits to John’s Baptism for righteousness sake and who in his submission in the deep waters, now re-emerges as the One in whom God the Father may declare to be His Son. Christ’s Baptism has been for the sealing of this new relationship of understandings, whose source is found in the Holy Trinity and whose outcome is to be vouchsafed in it and by it in the sending of the Holy Spirit.
The final note which the Baptism of Christ strikes for this world is that there can be no emergent life without solid trust. The submission of Jesus to the divine will is one which is maintained by the Trinity in trust. This is the very relationship of trust which has been gifted to the Baptized. For it has incorporated us into the promise made in the Baptism of Christ Himself. Our practice of Christian Faith is to be one in which we gladly and freely accept our status as recipients of God’s grace, so that in God’s own time, the promises of his glory in us may at last be revealed, not in the abstract, but out of the substance of who we are and what has made us what we have become.
And so the yearning strong
With which the soul will long
Shall far out pass the power of human telling;
For none can guess its grace
Till he become the place
Wherein the Holy Spirit makes his dwelling.
‘Come Down O Love Divine’ - Bianco da Siena, d.1434.
Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany
5th Jan 2014
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 synchronisation 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).