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Feast of Pentecost

27th May 2012

They were all filled with the Holy Spirit.  Acts 2.4.

Some say that The Coming of the Holy Spirit marks the Church’s birthday, and in a way this is true, although the Church was begun as the disciples were called at Galilee. But even so, our dramatic first reading from The Acts of the Apostles describes a signal moment among those who had followed Christ. This Pentecost moment was singular and devastating. The Holy Spirit had come with power; like burning fire, and it rested upon them. And it literally turned their lives inside out.

This had emerged out of their long Eastertide. It had been an Easteride of waiting and of wondering and of bewilderment. Something might emerge out of all this, but what? What is certain among the loose band of followers was this: The teaching of Christ and the experience of the resurrection had been transformative. They now knew that what they had been given was a Gospel of unparalleled spiritual power.  Pentecost had come to them in the giving of spiritual gifts. And the Giver was the Giver of all things, God himself. And the gift was the gift of himself as seen and known in His Son Jesus Christ and in the giving of the Holy Spirit. Jesus had asked that it be sent. And so it was. The original spirit of God, which had brooded over the face of the waters before the Creation had now become the life giving spirit mediated in and through the life and death of Christ. And the gift was to be both inspirational and practical.

It is most important to the writer of the Acts of the Apostles that this is a Holy Spirit which is not wil o’ the wisp and elusive. It is a Holy Spirit which takes basic form in the life of the emerging Christian community as a gift from God in Jesus Christ. And the primary fact of this gift is three-fold:

Firstly it is a gift which calls us to think differently about the human family in the breakdown of tribal, national and language barriers. The idea of the proliferation of languages with the one singular understanding burns in our minds as the possibilities that lie inherent in the understanding of different worlds of understanding. We are here called to take on the reality of what lies before us as strange and new and embrace it wholeheartedly, for it is when we meet and greet and accept the new and the hitherto unlearned parts of our experience that we truly grow into God’s likeness.

Little Gidding   IV
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 of pyre -  
  To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment?
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.

Love as a devouring fire… A devastating thought.
Secondly, the gift of the Holy Spirit is the one which calls the Christian Church to look beyond itself and its own needs and to see the person of Christ in the eyes of the stranger, the visitor, the refugee, the homeless one, the marginalised one, the gay person, the drunk, the depressed and the fatalistic. It is inward in that the Spirit is holy and it is a spirit which gives inner nourishment, but its basic life is one which calls us out of ourselves and beyond the level of our normal horizons. God is to be found there : in the other. He is ‘The Holy’ Other… In this there may come new life, for the Spirit renews us as it draws us out of ourselves, and into the place of illumination and of hope which is the presence of God and the love of God. The Spirit is also indwelling, and inward: This Church is to be the place where we may both re-charge our spiritual batteries and where our hopes and imaginations may be re-kindled:

Unless the eye catch fire
The God will not be seen.
Unless the ear catch fire
The God will not be heard.
Unless the tongue catch fire
The God will not be named.
Unless the heart catch fire
The God will not be loved.
Unless the mind catch fire
The God will not be known.

Extract from 'Pentecost' by William Blake.

Finally, the Holy Spirit lives among us in the life of God’s Church, which is the power of God and the influence of God. This week as in all weeks we meet on Friday mornings for coffee. From 10 am until 2 pm. This is not a coffee morning or a conversation group – I would prefer to call it an open group, open to the elements, offering an open welcome, and open to the possibility of human encounter and human encounter in many different conversations being transforming and renewing in its possibility. It tells us all something about what one theologian has called ‘the sacramentality of conversation’. This week we had a welcomed a young business man from Toronto, a young man from Florence in Italy and an elderly Iraqi woman and her daughter-in-law, not Moslems but Kurdish Christian women. The older of the two women had witnessed her husband’s death at the hands of Saddam’s security guards. But they all come to this church and find something of god here, in what ever form you may wish to describe it. Or perhaps this presence, this peace, this Spirit of God is in fact indescribable.?

This Church, in what it is and in what it manages to be for so many different kinds of people, is that place where God is known to dwell and therefore a place of peace. This provides for a pentecostal peace, the peace of God which passes all understanding and yet one which may be known and shared: that peace which may reach into and beyond the barriers of custom and boundaries set by this or that ingathered community… The message of Pentecost is that the Spirit of God has now entered places where doors had formerly been shut and minds closed. In the breaking down of these barriers, in the love of the stranger and in the power and influence of God, The Holy Spirit has now provided the living flame of God’s love for us, whomever and wherever we may be…

Only connect! Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer!! 

Margaret Schelegel (Emma Thompson) From chapter 22, Howards End (1910)  E M Forster.

That They May Be One

20th May 2012

“That they may be one as we are one”.

The words of John Chapter 17 lie at the very heart of John’s teaching. His Gospel tells us that Jesus comes from God and goes back to God. The space in between these two movements is the one which speaks of the fulfilling of a God-given destiny. The words of Jesus form what has become known as ‘the farewell discourse’ in which the fulfilment of his mission and its final farewell brings with it a prayer for the unity of humankind. The Cole Porter song tells us that ‘every time we say good bye, I die a little’ and in Jesus’s ‘goodbye’ discourse, there lies the greatest hope for the future of mankind. And this is the hope which sets human destiny alongside the call to unity. ‘That they may be one’ says Jesus’, ‘…even as the Father and I are one’.  On this Sunday, the first after Ascension Day, this Gospel reading truly marks the shift between Christ’s earthly existence and the hope which he carries for us all as he returns to the Father.

To speak about unity is not to speak of uniformity or sameness but rather to speak of things which are experienced and held in common. The idea of a co-dependent common humanity is one which was been forged out of the two world wars. It took two devastating global conflagrations  for the message of a united nations to make itself truly known. The forming of the united nations out of the death, destruction, wounds and ashes of world war was a deed whose time had come. It was a learning from past history and its mistakes. It was made out of the tragedy of carpet bombing, civilian death and the Holocaust. It was the creation of what Aldous Huxley had called ‘brave new world’. There is the same sense in St John’s Gospel in which Jesus looks forward to a brave, new world which will be realised as the life of God existent in the life of humankind. Both would, in Christ, live within one another. This was not to be mere  ‘wishful thinking’ or an idle and ill-founded hope. This was to be a unity based on experience and upon fact, upon a future hope emerging out of past and present realities and upon an utterly realistic account of the human condition in as it is found.

Dag Hammarskjold  United Nations Secretary General 1953-1961 on ‘fighting optimism’:

"It is in a sense a switch from the atmosphere of pre-1914 to what I believe is the atmosphere of our generation…—a switch from the, so to say, mechanical optimism of previous generations to what I might call the fighting optimism of this present generation. We have learned it the hard way, and we will certainly have to learn it again and again and again."

The call of Christ is the call to see God in one another and to experience God in and through one another. The Christian faith is one which is, in human terms, for ever relational. And to see God in one another is to live as a ‘fighting optimist’. It is to accept along the way that we are far from the perfected beings we make ourselves out to be. The plain fact is that I need my neighbour not for what I can extract out of him but I need him to fulfil my own true destiny.  I need my neighbour in order to find out what kind of person I truly am. This is surely what all the words about God and love in the New Testament lead us, more fully and more deeply into a love of humankind as I find it in my own life’s modest sphere. To learn from my neighbour that I am weak, fallible and prone to myself is not bad thing, but perhaps is the true ‘pearl of great price’, and the one thing needful for my soul’s salvation. The Olympic flame is now rested travelling through glorious Devon and will this morning cross the River Erme.

“Devon, Glorious Devon!”
Written by Sir Edward German (1862 - 1936, born Edward German Jones).

Combe and tor,
green meadow and lane,
birds on the waving bough.
Beetling cliffs by the surging main,
rich red loam for the plough.
Devon's the font of the finest blood
that braces England's breed.
Her maidens fair as the apple bud
and her men are men indeed.

When Adam and Eve were dispossed
of the garden, hard by Heaven,
they planted another one down in the West -
'twas Devon, 'twas Devon, glorious Devon!

As it traverses the shores of the British Isles, it carries with it the hope for the coming Olympic Games as it blazes its way around our shores. And what kind of an Olympic Games is best for all of us? The Olympic motto ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ is a motto of superlatives, and if you are older yours might be slower, more careful, and a bit shaky’. Christianity does not offer a faith of human superlatives but one which is grounded in our everyday existence. God is to be shown in our everyday dealings with one another and especially how we treat one another with courtesy and respect, honouring one another’s own right to freedom of expression, and of our own right to be ‘who we are’.

The legacy of our ascended Lord is the one which is the prayer for human unity, at the individual, communal national and global levels. That we should find one another in one another.  Perhaps then, we should look elsewhere for a deeper and more lasting meaning, and one which expresses once more the unity which is the hope of the Christ who utters his farewell discourse in Chapter 17 of his Gospel ‘that they be one, even as we are one’. That hope is symbolised in the five Olympic Games interlinked rings, representing the world’s five continents. But the rings might also represent the interlinking and interdependence of all our human destinies. We are to find our true integrity in and through our life together and in the understanding and forgiveness we can show along the way. In this way we can begin to give answer to the prayer of Christa and to begin to practice that ‘fighting optimism’ for which a great United nations Secretary General struggled and died.

A Sermon for the Feast of the Ascension

17th May 2012

One of the greatest discoveries in the painting of pictures was not of a painting technique but which lay in the discovery of a type of paint. Before the 1400s paintings were made with egg tempera, a mixture of coloured paint powder bound with egg yolk and mixed with a palette to make a paste. The good thing about the egg yolk was that it dried the paint quickly. The bad thing was that it always dried as matt, and its mixing as a paint produced a non-reflective painted surface. This made it very difficult to paint light and for the surface of the painting to attract light. And so paintings up to this period are painted on thick cuts of wood and appear very flat. The painter has to work very hard to paint light (done with white streaks) and water (usually with wavy lines). This was sometimes compensated for (if you could afford it!) by the adding of gold leaf so that the painting gave off a bright shine, and this was good for icons but could not produce an image which was what we might call ‘life-like’. It was the discovery of oil paint which changed things. Oil glistened and made colour shine, and so an eye could twinkle or a drop of water be seen as a reflective globule. You could even paint a mirror and reproduce its effects as in Jan Van Eyck’s 1434 painting, The Arnolfini Portrait  in the National Gallery

As we come to the Feast of the Ascension of Christ a similar problem faces both the artist and the Church. Traditionally the Ascension of Jesus Christ has, as you will see on the illustration to this morning’s new sheet, has been depicted as the group of disciples gaze up to see through the clouds a pair of feet! It always seems rather comic. There were no more means at the disposal of the artist to convey the Ascension. Its truer and deeper meaning is not about what is seen but about the very nature of God and of what lies deep. The real meaning ot the Ascension allows us to see that as Christ returns to the Father, so humanity and divinity also find their true meaning in and with one another and not apart from one another. As Jesus returns to the Father Heaven is joined to earth. Humankind is tranformed in its slow but increasingly sure understanding of who God is in Jesus Christ.

This mixing and merging is symbolised in a small ceremony embedded in this Eucharist as the priest, preparing the Eucharistic offering, pours a small amount of water into the chalice he has filled with wine. And as he does this he says these words “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity”. The water does not dilute. The coming of Christ brings about the meeting point between the divine and human realms, and also the heavenly and the earthly; which have in him mixed and merged; and produced the bright glimmer which we have called GLORY and the influence which is what we have called HOLY. The great prayer of worship sums it all up. It is called the Sanctus:

Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord,
God of power and might,
Heaven and Earth are full of your glory.
Hosanaah in the Highest!
Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord,
Hosannah in the Highest!

This is the glory, that emerges out of Christ’s own humility and obedience to suffering. We are reminded in Ephesians 4.6 that Christ  “ascended on high and led captivity captive”.  And so in this way we may see the Ascension as the celebration of the glory not only of God but also of humanity and the unlikely possibilities that may emerge out of muddling and struggling lives like ours. God has become like us in Jesus Christ so that we may now share in the divine likeness, which for the first time becomes accessible to us in Him.

Archbishop Michael Ramsay was one who constantly proclaimed the Gospel of Christ in terms of its irradiation of God’s glory, which is the life of man in its fullest potential. He wished that these words, from St Irenaus, a second century theologian and saint, be placed on his gravestone:

The Glory of God is the living Man; The life of Man is the Vision of God.

“Where there is no vision; the people perish” says the writer of Proverbs in 29.18. The Ascension grants us that vision, maybe crudely expressed as a pair of feet, but in actual fact opening up for us a new vision of what John the Divine called “New Heavens and a New Earth”. And the coming of this vision is very important in our own times. If we are living in an age where we are defined merely as consumers,  sharers of basic information rather than conversationists; where increasingly we see ourselves as subject to forces and influences beyond our control, and where language is abbreviated and human experience subject to so many mechanical transactions, then we need a new vision which embraces us in all our humanitiy and which is possessed of radical compassion.. The opening up of the idea of the Christ who ‘leads captivity captive’, the creation of ‘new heavens and a new earth’ brings us to the place where life is no longer seen as pertaining to the old dull flat, two dimensional existence, the egg-bound one, but bright with light and multi- dimensional. It is a life which reaches beyond itself and finds God as Glory: The glory of God is the living Man; The life of Man is the Vision of God”.  This is the same God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” and who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus ...2 Corinthians 4.6.

A new dimension is opened up for us; one which has united our earthly existence with our Maker and Redeemer, and which lies before us as our ultimate; our truest potential. The Light of Christ will be able to be seen and known for what it truly is.

Love, Love, Love

13th May 2012

As we come to the end of the Easter Season our readings draw us to the final outcome of the Resurrection of Jesus from the Dead. It was for the Church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to proclaim their risen Lord not just as a phenomenon but in an understanding of what constituted ‘human being’. And for the Church this was straightforward. God, the God of the Old Testament, the God of history, the ‘abba’; the Father of Jesus was love. The outworking of human love was the defining characteristic of the Christian Church as it emerged like a butterfly out of its chrysalis. But this was to be a love that was expressive and timeless.

This teaching on love, though, was not just ‘pie in the sky’. It was forged in the life of the Gospel writer John in relation to the early history of the Church from 90-110 AD.  It was at this time that the Christian Church had begun to identify itself quite distinctly from its Jewish inheritance. This identity emerged out of the wisdom on the part of the great Apostles Peter and Paul that Baptism be offered to those known as gentiles - the general population;  the great mass of people ‘out there’,  ‘the great unwashed’. This radical decision was acted upon out of a sense of Christ and of the radical demands of the love of Christ. There was to be no partiality shown. The Christian community was no longer a slave to religious convention, but now a community of love whose members held a relationship in common. Jesus had called them ‘friends’ and this embrace of friendship cut across and undermined the old religions and the claim to many so many little exclusivenesses. It cut across the cultural norms and the weight of rank and privilege set against the Christian claim to an interrelated society with a common and shared destiny. It gained ground and lasted because its vision was realistic and expansive.  It spoke about what was real, and what is real in us. Jesus had come not to proclaim a religiosity for its own sake but to speak for the truth of our human condition at its very heart. John reminds us of Jesus’ words ‘This is my commandment, ‘love one another as I have loved you’. Another John, John Lennon was to say, nineteen hundred and sixty years later,

Love is the answer, and you know that for sure; Love is a flower, you've got to let it grow.
You're just left with yourself all the time, whatever you do anyway. You've got to get down to your own God in your own temple. It's all down to you, mate.

John Lennon is all very well… but he was mistaken. The Church was and does never speak of ‘your own God in your own temple’. Lennon’s idea of love was a love without God. He was really saying ‘love is God’. That’s not what we know to be true. Our three readings this morning tell us differently. They assume before anything else that the sole referent for the showing of human love is the existence of God, who has loved us before time began and who sent his Son to show us that love. Through our Baptism we have been provided with the patterning for that love. John is sure as he waits upon God that God is saying ’You did not choose me, I chose you’. This expression is written into an icon at my old theological college, Westcott House in Cambridge.

Rowan Williams, in his book, "The Dwelling of Light: Praying with Icons of Christ" (Canterbury Press, 2003) bases his chapter on the Westcott icon, writing, "the icon of the Christ Pantocrator in the chapel of Westcott House, Cambridge, was and is for me and many others a profoundly significant image." Of its meaning he writes,

"The point is simple: face to face with Jesus, there and only there, do we find who we are. We have been created to mirror his life, the eternal life of the one turned always toward the overflowing love of the Father; but our human existence constantly turns away. When we look at Jesus, we see in some measure what he sees, and are drawn to where his eyes lead us... we look at him looking at us, and try to understand that as he looks at us he looks at the Father. In other words, when he looks at us, he sees the love that is his own source and life, despite all we have done to obscure it in ourselves. When we look at him looking at us, we see both what we were made to be, bearers of the divine image and likeness, and what we have made of ourselves."

If love is to be anything at all it must speak for our human condition as it is found. This Eastertide stands for the proclamation of that love not just for its own sake but for the life of the world and the fulfilment of human destiny. Anything else is fake. It is in this sense, and only in this sense that St Augustine’s order has been understood:

Love, and do what you will…

Practical Love

6th May 2012

Practical Love: A Sermon preached at Holy Cross Church Cromer Street, London
for Easter 5, 6th May 2012,  by The Rev’d. Dr. James Walters,
Chaplain of the London School of Economics.

There is, on the back of my office door, a quotation that reads:

“I only love God as much as I love the person I love the least”.

Those are the words of Dorothy Day. She’s not that well known this side of the Atlantic but she is something of a folk hero among social activist American Christians. She was originally a Communist but she discovered the faith was baptized at the age of 30 in 1927. She believed that her ideals of social justice were better lived out as a Christian than as a communist and she set up the “House of Hospitality” to work with the poorest residents of New York’s slums.

She was very scathing of American Christianity of her time. She saw a lot of supposed faith, a lot of people who claimed to love God. But those same people could be highly judgmental of those living in poverty around them. This was an America to the “New Deals” of Franklin D Roosevelt - the reforms that brought in the kind of welfare system in the United States that was also coming into being across Europe to protect vulnerable people - the unemployed, the sick, the homeless, the elderly. And indeed, if you’re familiar with the novels of John Steinbeck, you’ll have some idea how much suffering there was. This was a brutal free market America where those who couldn’t afford to eat were just viewed as indolent and inferior. But Dorothy Day believed something else. She believed, “I only love God as much as I love the person I love the least”. She is saying the same thing, of course, as St John in his first letter:

Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

That might sound like something we would obviously want to sign up to. We talk a lot about love in church and there are few people who would take issue with any of the warm words that John expresses in his letter about God being love and abiding in that love. But the reality of all this stuff is much more demanding, maybe even offensive to our sense of fairness and justice. Because Dorothy Day reminds us of two things about Christian love.

First, love is not, in the first instance, a feeling so much as a decision. We must love our brothers and sisters, John tells us. But the Gospel tells us that all people are potentially our brothers and sisters, certainly all the baptised as we see in the new bond created between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. And Jesus goes further to say that we should love our enemies. Now our culture believes that love is a feeling - most pop songs are all about it. But we are never going to feel love for our enemies. It is impossible to feel love for all people in the way John talks about here. So for the Christian, we are able to love because we decide to love. Essentially we decide not to judge because just as God sent not his Son to condemn the world, so it is our refusal to condemn that makes love possible. And goodness me, condemnation is very tempting.

Second, Dorothy Day reminds us that as well as a decision, love is an action. Love needs to be expressed in concrete form. Dorothy Day really got on with that in practical ways running a soup kitchen and housing the homeless. In a big city like ours with so many different needs, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by a sense of inability to make a difference. But there are always things that each one of us can do to make our love for others concrete. Indeed there has to be if we are truly to be Christians and follow this very direct command of Christ. So love is a decision and love is an action.

All of this is becoming more and more pressing in the society in which we live today, because as our welfare state is rolled back and market forces come to dictate the shape of our society, we are in some ways returning to the kind of world in which Dorothy Day lived - a world where people are not compassionate because they are too quick to pass judgment on the cause of somebody else’s need. Archbishop Rowan got into all that trouble last year in his New Statesman article for saying that we are seeing ‘a quiet resurgence of the seductive language of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor’. And when something causes that much of a stir, it’s clearly because it is an uncomfortable truth.

What we know is that this city is becoming more unequal and more fragmented, more governed by the logic of the market in crucial areas like housing. Maybe that is an issue affecting some of you sitting here. And I think that vision of a fragmented, market-driven city is inconsistent with the New Testament which doesn’t set people in competition with one another but sees everybody as connected to everybody else. We see that in this wonderful image of life in Christ - life on the vine. All the branches bear their own fruit and the parable clearly implies a personal responsibility, a judgment of our individual actions. But all are woven together and connected to one another in an organic way. Essentially the vine flourishes as a whole or it withers and dies as a whole. And it will flourish when the whole vine is grounded in Christ who is the God of love.

“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
Those aren’t warm fluffy words for our comfort. Those are challenging, radical words for our time. So let’s be people who stand against condemnation, people for whom love is a decision and an action. And so let’s pray that this city might be a fruitful vine where all are fruitful together and where we all grow in the love of God.


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