Sermon Preached at St Stephen's Walbrook for the Thursday after Ash Wednesday
2nd Mar 2017
Sermon for St Stephen’s Walbrook
The Thursday after Ash Wednesday 2017
“Your faith has made you well” 18.42b.
Yesterday, Ash Wednesday was a very revealing day for me, for by its end I was forced to recognise Christ’s presence as both openly declared and as a hidden secret. I had spent the early morning on the Euston Road, opposite King’s Cross Station, offering the many commuters ‘ashes to go’. Over a period of an hour we ‘ashed’ sixty eight people, who went away with the black smeared crosses emblazoned upon their foreheads. The sign of the cross when seen like this is so very visible, and for many, unmistakable. And then in the evening, at the Ash Wednesday Eucharist with Imposition of Ashes the gospel reading provided a strict instruction in hiding any sign of personal piety and prayer before others lest you succumb to the sin of pride and make all your acts worthless. The Gospel makes mention of the God who sees in secret and who rewards in secret. His presence is a necessarily hidden one. So why the showy black crosses?
The simple answer is this: that these are not marks of a completed or successful act of personal piety, God knows none of us have done anything deserving such a reward. Rather these strange, dark crosses, made into a balm of burnt palm leaves and holy oil, symbolise the impending Passion , Death and Resurrection of Christ. As Christ’s ultimate, saving acts, they provide the key which inhabits, informs and then crowns our own very testing experience of mortality. With characteristic boldness, St Paul reminds us in Romans 6.3 that “If we become one in a death like His, we shall certainly become one with him in a Resurrection like his”. The crosses are marks of our shaky, mortal faith and not our vanity.
In today’s Gospel reading from Luke, Jesus discloses his own going to death as a kind of secret. I say a ‘kind’ of secret because for Jesus, this disclosure is an open one and even claims its veracity via the ancient prophets. But touchingly, maddeningly, the disciples do not understand that this dire prediction concerns their Lord and Master, their teacher and rabbi. Remember the old saying, best spoken in a Yorkshire accent, ‘There’s nowt so blind as them which cannot see’. The disciples’ misunderstanding is to lead to a turning away from the Saviour at the crucial moment. It contributes to their status as fair weather friends. But they are not to be so easily diminished, and our Gospel reading saves them from any kind of summary dismissal. This is because the Gospels will always convey, in no uncertain terms, the radically compassionate, constant, merciful and forgiving God who never withdraws his favour or retracts his Call from them or us, even though from the human point of view circumstances and persons stretch this trust almost to breaking point.
Our Gospel shows this radical compassion in the healing of the blind man. He addresses Jesus as ‘Son of David’ or ‘Messiah’. He, this blind man, knows something that the disciples do not, that Jesus is The Messiah, the One who is to come. The man has done nothing more to deserve the restoration of his sight than that he believes this to be the case. Nothing at all. But for Luke this is the new reality, the one in which God the Father’s endless and unsurpassable love and mercy is recognised in the Son. The blind man’s ‘yes’ to this is enough. The inner seeing capability of the blind man is in Christ transformed by Christ into actual, physical sight. But the inner seeing is presented to us as primary.
The Gospels all allow us to see that the disciples and we too, inhabit the place of both seeing and unseeing. Our understanding of Jesus Christ helps us all the more to consider how and in what manner their understanding of Jesus, though partial and unheeding, is to be radically and painfully and finally joyfully fulfilled in his suffering, passion, death and resurrection. Lent calls us out and calls us forward, beckons us to realise something these things in forty days and forty nights.
Jesus, occupies the place of the suffering servant. Jesus’ Messiahship and the pain and the tension of unwanted, unheeded disclosure must echo the frustrated message of the prophet Isaiah when, in the experience of its rejection he would say, “You will listen and listen, but never understand. You will look and look, but never see”. Isaiah 6.9
But now, in Jesus, Luke is reminding us that even given our partial sight, our incomplete faith, and our own tendency to fall away from the Christian faith, God nonetheless believes in each one of us and in this we are never lost or confounded. In his Son Jesus Christ we are never forsaken. Thus He may still say to us, even now: “Receive your sight, your faith is making you well”. Wear your cross with pride.