Sermon for the Feast of the Ascension
28th May 2017
Ascension Day Sermon 2017
“The glory of God is the living Man; the life of Man is the Vision of God”.
Archbishop Michael Ramsey.
After the six Sundays of Easter, in which we have encountered the risen Lord with the disciples in so many ways, our observance of this Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord takes us in another direction. Actually, it takes us to another dimension – heavenward. And for The Church this heavenly dimension is a quite natural way of regarding the life of God the Creator in relation to us his creatures. This dimension is expressed most fully in John’s Gospel where Jesus’ life is the one which has come from God and goes back to God. And again for the Church, to speak of Christ is to speak of the holiness and the glory of that freedom of movement he has brought about between the heavenly and the earthly places. We have, over past weeks witnessed the trial, suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. In the weeks following Easter we have witnessed the Christ who comes to the disciples to reassure them and point their lives and their faltering faith every forward. He provides hope in the present and the promise of glory for the future. He promises the gift of the Holy Spirit. And now he goes back to the Father as he ascends into heaven. One of the Psalms express this poetically and joyfully – (Psalm 19.1-4):
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun…
In this meeting and mixing of the heavenly and the earthly there is the hope that is held out for us in Christ. Why is a belief in heaven so much a part of Christian Faith? How are we to believe in heaven in a way that is not as has been said cynically “pie in the sky when you die”? To speak of the Ascension of Jesus is to speak of the glory which emerges out of his own self offering, which is one of humility and self-giving, even unto death. It is best expressed in the 1662 Prayer Book’s Eucharistic Rite:
O God our Heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption, who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world, and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of that his precious death, until his coming again…
We are reminded in Ephesians 4.6 that Jesus “ascended on high and led captivity captive”. And we, who are on this earth as captives, are also as Christians those who follow where Jesus Christ has gone before. And we are promised that what emerges out of the pattern of his and our own struggle and in his life is the glory which is the hope of heaven to come. Like him we come from God and go back to God. Christianity is above all else a hopeful and heaven directed faith. Our living out of this life in the pattern and likeness of Christ is a kind of suffering unto self, but again, after the pattern of Christ’s own being, the promise made to us is to the glory which is yet to be revealed to us:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. Romans 8:18.
Archbishop Michael Ramsey was one who constantly proclaimed the Christian glory in terms of the life of Man to its fullest potential. He wishes that these words, from Irenaeus, 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.
Some time ago I was in Salisbury Cathedral. It is perhaps the finest example of a complete Medieval Gothic Cathedral that we have, with its spire rising to over 400’ the tallest spire in England, and the inside the vaulting which carries you mind and heart heavenward. Heavenward not just because the vaults are high and beautiful but because they speak to the heart and the souI. The architecture is spiritual architecture. I attended Evensong at which Psalm 18 was sung “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” and I began to see the cathedral around me in a new light and even a new dimension. It was no longer just a glorious great church building but a piece of living sculpture, full of space and light, and arches and shapes which took the eye in this or that direction. And then, too, the music and the choir themselves declared further this glory of which the psalmist wrote and of the many ways in which the Glory of God may be expressed in the lives of us all. The glory of God lies all around us and the Christian is the one who has open eyes to express this same glory in all we are and in all we do for God’s sake…
And this is where we come down from heaven and into this earth. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ, his coming to birth as both Man and Son of God is one complete action. It is one which gifts the glory of God to each one of us in our own lives. It is the promise of his presence and of the potential in our own existences in the promise of glory gifted to us by the One Lord Jesus Christ who has ascended to that place where God is. This is the place where we are headed, too, and there is glory in that, too.
As we give our lives more fully to God, and as we dedicate ourselves in the service of Christ, let us then declare not only in our lips but with our hearts:
“The glory of God is the living Man; the life of Man is the Vision of God”.
Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter
21st May 2017
Sermon for The Sixth Sunday of Easter
In a short time the world will no longer see me, but you will see me because I live and you will live. John 14.18.
There are some individuals who have left the world a massive human legacy. My own experience of one such great person was the founder of the Hospice Movement, Dame Cecily Saunders. I spent a year at St Christopher’s Hospice in Sydenham in the early eighties working alongside patients who had been referred to this place and who were deemed ‘terminally ill’. It seemed at the time a revolutionary thing to establish a place of care, a cross between a hospital and a nice hotel with all the amenities in the service of those whose lives and medical diagnosis had been deemed hopeless. But it was also a Christian community. A community of hope. A centre of excellence in which minds and hands and hearts and voices combined to provide a new light of hope in a dark place. In the middle of so much cancer, something new and important could be set down. The fact of dying might no longer be seen as sinister or awful, but the natural complement to a life well lived. The fear of death was laid bare. I remember in 1970 hearing of the death from cancer of a young woman athlete who had won a silver medal at the 1968 Olympic Games. Lillian Board had died of colo-rectal cancer, and its fact had been published in all the papers. The effect of the death of this 22 year old woman, whose athleticism had brought her to the peak of success on the track, was for the communication of the unspeakable cancer. . Cancer was then regarded as unmentionable, and referred to as the big ‘C’. The Hospice Movement, helped to slay this terrible demon and to cast out great fear.
The Biblical readings for these Sundays after Easter point us to the kind of Church which emerged out of the life and death and Resurrection of Christ. And the picture we are given is of a Church living its life from the Death and Resurrection of Christ. This energy was a life force granted to the Church through the gift, the operation and the proclamation of The Holy Spirit which granted life and substance and future to the Church. The Church was not just a religious organisation, but a living organism whose head was Christ. It was a Church whose identity lay not just in the example and teaching of Christ but in his very body and blood. This was a Church of the Incarnation, a life and death Church. And rather like the Hospice Movement, the Church was to be radically humanitarian, a slayer of age-old and life-denying demons, a Church whose practical human wisdom, healing power and courage in the face of opposition was to break through the barriers that separated life from death and faith from fear. As John tells us in today’s Gospel, “…you will see me because I live and you will live”.
It is certainly true of a Christian Church like Holy Cross, that it experiences life and death and everything else between. Here in King's Cross we often witness acts of violence in our streets, where the police tape has been ranged across familiar walking paths, and where individual policeman stand guard over an empty scene. At the same time a baby cries, and then streams of children and commuters bustle up and down Whidbourne Street. Someone is playing their music too loud, someone has arrived outside church and sits on the bench to drink his regular can of lager at 9 in the morning. An elderly woman walks past leaning on her shopping trolley for dear worth. The landlord of the pub opposite walks his Alsatian dog. A road sweeper or cleaning operative come to sweep up last nights fag ends while a jogger runs past. Whether it be the Hospice, the life of the early Church or a King’s Cross Street scene, for us as Christians these are all places which have been and are inhabited by the love of God. There is no place and no circumstances in which the love of God cannot be manifest and shown to be real. The mark of the Christian Church from its beginning was its ability to address its place in the big world as an involved inhabitant. Christianity has never been a religion based on ideals. Nor is it a closed sect. It faces the world as it finds it and is called to be Christ in all those situations where the world cries out in need.
The Church must surely stand as that place and those people in which the presence and purposes of God are made known. The Church affirms the wonder of our human being and therefore its great worth. The Church as Hospice. The Church as place of listening and healing. The Church as place and people of hope. This will involve the casting out of fear in its many and various forms. It will be the Church’s call to be a hospitable place which embraces life inside and around it. God’s eyes and so Christian eyes look with compassion on the world that Jesus came to save. The Easter message is that the Resurrection of Christ from the Dead is not gifted to the chosen few, the spiritual aristocracy, but to our entire common humanity. The Church exists as an agent for the healing of the whole person. Our true calling this Eastertide is the one which finds ourselves newly composed and our hearts more compassionately open to the world around us, a world which needs the love of God just as much now as it did when the tomb first stood gloriously empty. This forms an important part of Jesus' valedictory or goodbye message to the disciples. But he does not leave them spiritually orphaned. He reminds them and us that “…you will see me because I live and you will live”. Death has been swallowed up in His victory...life now has the last word.
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter
14th May 2017
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
“In my Father’s House there are many mansions”.
All of us, one way or another long for a sense of belonging. It is natural for us to need that place and those people to whom we can be ourselves. In recent times there has been a remarkable upsurge in the number of people living on their own. Many modern day families no longer live close by one another. Consequently, families do not form the formal units that they once did. Many are ‘second families’ or families drawn from previously existing family units. Then there are families which are scattered throughout the world, and who exist, forced apart, but united in love and communicating on the mobile ‘phone. Money is sent electronically through the ether.
In the light of the words of St John’s Gospel we may come to understand more fully the mysterious words that “…in my Father’s house are many mansions”. There are in the world so many kinds of dwelling place for a global population which has become more and more proliferated and communicating with itself from immense distances and situations in life. The many mansions or rooms speak to us of diversity but also that they form part of one household. As the Easter message is proclaimed in this series of Gospel readings from St John, it is being proclaimed for the Church. And this was a Church growing out of a very similar social situation to our own in London today. A situation where diversity of thought and custom, of language and allegiance was commonplace.
The rapid growth of the Christian Church owed itself to a miracle. And the miracle was based upon the Christian Gospel and of the Jesus of Nazareth, the local man who was in the space of three centuries to become the One for whom The One God manifested himself as his own self in human form. The growth of the Church rested very firmly on the experience of the Resurrection as an upsurge of divine power, galvanising and informing the Church. In the spirit of the living Christ this Church was to advance away from its Jewish inheritance. It did this in the firm belief, expressed passionately by St Paul, that the Christian Faith was for all people everywhere: all should partake of Christ. His death and Resurrection was for the life of the world. If this were not so, then the full significance was Christ’s sacrifice would never have been realised. For them the existence of Christ and the sacrifice of Christ are one and the same. Jesus is “…the one full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world…” This echoes the words of the writer to the Hebrews (10.14) when he tells us that “For by one offering Jesus has perfected forever those that are being sanctified…”
The Church offers us all the hope for the sanctification of our lives and their purposes. In the Church’s life, in the household of faith, lies the consecration of us all in the one body of faith. Two years ago there was a murder in Argyle Street. A man was stabbed to death in one of the so called ‘units’ where live those who are vulnerable and medicated. A row which took time to brew between two men exploded weeks later in terrible violence and the death of one of them. A police cordon was placed around the front porch for a day and a half. I heard the news of this happening not from the police but as I was beckoned into the house two days later by one of the inhabitants to meet the staff, who seemed pleased to see a priest. They were in an obvious state of shock and requested, in their own words, ‘prayers of deliverance’. And so we sat and prayed about what had happened and comforted one another in this house of dread. In my Father’s House there are many mansions and some of them are unlike any you have ever seen. Many are in need of sanctification. Now the three houses of dread are boarded up and I do not know what their fate will be, but these house, situated alongside a primary school and in the middle of the most densely packed part of London were clearly not the appropriate places for the mentally vulnerable.
St John’s mysterious words are significant for how they tell us of how strange and wonderful are God’s ways and how they inhabit so many places and worlds beyond the confines of our own. He is the God who surprised me two years ago, and brought me into a troubled house at the behest of a troubled man, poor in spirit, who was spiritually awake and genuinely concerned for the life of his house and compassionate to toward the anxiety of those bearing the responsible position.
There are so many ways in which we ‘do’ Church, aren’t there? We are being called at Eastertide to be the Church of the one household of God but one whose inhabitants occupy the ‘many mansions’ of our world’s own living. We are called, like the early Christians, to be the Church which receives that same sanctifying grace which is the presence of Christ ‘at all times and in all places’. This week our east windows will be boarded up and will spend some weeks beholding a somewhat darkened and artificially lit sanctuary. In this mansion, come what may, we behold the fair beauty of the Lord, and take that sense of his presence into our lives so that we may be Christian presences, many mansions, in his service.
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter
7th May 2017
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter Year A
“I am the door of the sheepfold”. John10.4
Where there are doors, there are also keys and locks; where there are doors there are defended spaces; divided off. Doors may serve as a means of demarcation and of exclusion, and where there are doors there is the possibility of a welcome entering in or a shutting out. Doors of our churches are Easter doors, they should open like the Easter tomb and this openness will invite us into a place where new life is offered and received. The openness of the Easter message is a proclamation of Jesus Christ risen from the dead. Jesus is the door of the sheepfold. He beckons the believer to enter into a new and singular place. At the Ordination of new clergy in the Diocese of London, the Great West Doors of St Paul’s Cathedral are given a rare opening for the candidates to enter in. At the beginning of an enthronement ceremony for a Bishop, the west door of the cathedral is shut against him, and he must raise his shepherd’s crook and hammer it against the this massive door to gain entry…The new bishop must be seen not to be one of the spiritual bandits mentioned in the Gospel, but a spiritual leader for who must express in his ministry of leadership the openness which the open doors represent. The open doors offer in the Christian context fluid lines of entry and exit, in which faith and trust and welcome mix and merge. The One who calls is the same One who also welcomes and receives us in love. God is ever receptive.
For today’s Gospel writer John, Jesus is ‘the door of the sheepfold’. He is both the shepherd and the door. He is the one who both calls us and leads us into the household of faith. The door is the one which leads to the sheepfold and acts as its only conduit. We may have seen a herd of sheep pressed against a sheep door ready for dipping. The door is opened to let one in at a time. The door acts as a control to the means of entry into the fold. And in this simple descriptive way, John’s Gospel, a Gospel for the life of the emerging Church, insists upon Jesus as “The Way, the Truth and the Life”, and it is in Jesus that the way to the Father is secured. Remember that the very early Christian Church practised a Christianity known simply as ’The Way’. One way. Amid a world like ours where there were many completing religions and viewpoints, the insistence on ‘one’ way was a definite mark of the Church’s preaching of the Gospel of Christ. There was one Jesus Christ and one Way.
Most churches like ours have heavy gothic oak doors, which are sadly have so often kept shut. I once read an old book that Elsie Crossland, a former member of our congregation now departed, had left on the table at the back of church. It was written by a former Parish Priest of nearby Mary’s Church Eversholt Street, Father Desmond Morse-Boycott. Father Desmond wrote movingly about life in the London slums of the 1920s from direct experience and decried those churches which were shut against those who needed them the most: the way-farer, the poor and lonely as well as the interested traveller. The care for the churches furniture and properties had surely to be balanced with the Christian Gospel command that the Faith be in all essentials an OPEN faith – open to the outside elements, to the neighbourhood, the society and the world beyond the church walls. How was the Gospel to be proclaimed without Gospel hospitality? At the very least churches like this ours, too little open, might ask ourselves the question “Do we keep our church locked because we have not yet discovered the imagination or the will to keep it open?” “Is the church locked through our prudence or our lack of risk and of get up and go?” The fact remains that our churches remain a vital point of contact with the living God and the real world. Our visitors are a part of our identity as a serving church, and not something added onto it. They are part of us, with their hopes and dreams, their hopes and anxieties, their desire to give thanks, their longing for communion and the receiving of grace, their lighting of a candle or their keeping of silence in such a hallowed space. It is in this sense that Tertullian, an early Christian writer, stated that the Church existed for those outside its membership.
The Gospels for Eastertide are Gospels for and on behalf of the life and witness of God’s Church. The Resurrection is above all else a deliverance from fear and a living for Christ, a listening to the voice of Jesus who is the shepherd and guardian of our souls. In the London of 2017 it is going to become more important that our churches can make that 180 degree turn outwards and in and among the communities they serve. A Church turning itself toward the stranger, the traveller, onto our local community, onto London, onto our world and its life and especially onto and available to its suffering and pain. Our own architect has drawn attention to the fact that though this church has over sixty windows, through none of them may one look into the church or out onto the street. Maybe we can change this?
The Church is not just a lot of buildings with mock medieval doors, but people like you and me. The figure of Jesus as the Door of the Sheepfold is the one who is calling us to a greater realisation in our own lives of his loving compassion. As we meet Christ in this Eucharist this morning a prayer is being asked of us. That the doors of our own minds and hearts, closed off through fear may, by the gentle action of this Eucharist, be opened a little, and that the light of Christ’s Resurrection and its liberating power and radical acceptance may flood into those places which have been closed off. If we can experience God in this way there then lies the hope of a church which begins to truly live the Resurrection it proclaims. It will have experienced the renewal of heart and mind and welcome the stranger and the alien with open arms. Christ will have become ‘the door to the sheepfold’ where all may now be drawn in…