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…
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter
30th Apr 2017
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter
The Supper at Emmaus allows us to see the emergent Christian Faith and its relationship to past scripture, to the physical appearance of Christ. Jesus is disclosed as ‘God’s presence and his very self and essence all divine’ as he becomes known in the breaking of the bread. The Dutch Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) was a visionary painter, able to see into the heart of our humanity, as is the case in his Supper at Emmaus (1648), now in the Louvre in Paris. He is able to convey so much more than a beautiful surface, but portrays an iner world, also.He does this, for instance, in his numerous self-portraits, leading us into a rich interiority of the person, delineating the many facets of his humanity at various stages of his life, the truth about himself, his pride, his humiliation, his humor, his sufferings, his compassion, his aging, his wisdom, his greatness, and his littleness. This marvellous gift of disclosing his own inner life can be seen in a self-portrait at Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath of Rembrandt just a year before his death. You can catch a 214 bus and go and see it for free!
So likewise the actor Anthony Hopkins in ‘The Remains of the Day’ can convey a raft of emotion in one gesture, one look. The meeting of the stranger on the Road to Emmaus is akin to Mary’s meeting with the gardener who happens to be Jesus. She recognizes Jesus as he calls her by name, here Jesus is recognized in the breaking of bread, and reminds us that it is in this same breaking of bread in the Eucharist that Jesus is to be truly known and in which his real presence is felt and known. We are taken to the heart of things.
But this movement is subtle and apprended by faith. It is astonishing that the two disciples who met the Lord on the road did not recognize Him, even when He explained the Scriptures to them for we learn that “…beginning with Moses and the prophets, he expounded to them in all the scriptures, the things that were concerning him.” (Lk. 24:27) Though in they realized only in retrospect that their hearts were burning, it was when “he took bread, and blessed, and broke, and gave it to them,” that their eyes were truly opened. This is the moment caught by Rembrandt. He helps us to see that the world of ordinary things is nonetheless shot through with the 'deeper' presence of God. This echoes the Letter to the Hebrews 11.1 and the telling description of faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen…” The account of the meeting of the stranger on the road to Emmaus allows us to see how subtle and delicate a flower Christian faith really is and that for it to be otherwise would make of it something too ready made, too sure of itself. But Faith, it is suggested, is to provide the bedrock for our witness in a challenging world. Faith must be tested; tested, sometimes to the very limit of its capacity to remain as such, and it is in this way that God is experienced not as a religious antidote to all that life throws at us but as the source of its very hope. For many this remains hidden from direct view and all too quickly unheeded and discounted. But Christ still summons; and faith in HIm still beckons...
In Rembrandt’s painting we see Christ in His infinite tenderness at a banquet of love and intimate communion with His disciples, as with eyes turned to heaven, He breaks the bread. The two disciples, in the company of an uncomprehending servant, are astonished, as Christ is revealed in such to them in such a way. He is not dead now. He is alive in a way they could never have imagined. A new kind of very immediate recognition is made possible.
Blessed John Henry Newman writes:
A thick black veil is spread between this world and the next… There is no access through it into the next world. In the Gospel this veil is not removed, but every now and then marvelous disclosures are made to us of what is behind it. At times we seem to catch a glimpse of a Form which we shall hereafter see face to face.”
Christ, the Light of the World, is radiant. In the painting, the luminous white table cloth, like an altar cloth, reflects His light. Rembrandt seems to be linking this scene to the mystery of the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor. In both there is a sudden revelation of His divinity in His humanity, and the disciples are amazed. “Their eyes were opened, and they knew him” (Lk. 24:33).
The breaking of the bread alludes to the Last Supper and to the great mystery of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the Mass. Soon (after the Ascension) they will no longer see Christ with their human eyes. Christ is teaching them: they must learn to recognize Him as we must learn to recognize him in his real presence both in the Eucharist and by natural extension in the world and in people around us. This is the Mystery of Faith. This lies at the heart of our witness, a witness both to what we see and know as well as a witness to a hope borne out of Jesus Christ our Lord, who has risen from the dead and now, as at Emmaus, beckon us into the new life that he has made possible.
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter
23rd Apr 2017
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter
Then (Jesus) said to him “Do not doubt but believe”.
Thomas answered him “My Lord and my God!” John 20.27b,28.
In the painting ‘The Incredulity of Thomas’ by Caravaggio, Thomas is a gnarled old peasant, who, with furrowed brow and inquisitive and amazed eyes, has placed his dirty index finger into a wound in Christ’s side. Two other disciples look down at the implanted finger as though medical students at an examination in a teaching hospital. But they are not young medical students but rough old peasants. In a fascinating detail, Jesus guides Thomas’ finger into the wound. The effect is spine tingling. You are a witness to a startling scene, and you feel its effect viscerally, with your nerve endings, and it makes you want to shudder!
The painting takes the dialogue between Jesus and Thomas and involves us to the extent that it is WE who are made to feel the finger going into Christ’s wound. The spiritual reality of the resurrection is to be experienced in the flesh. The Resurrection of Jesus presents for the mind of all of us a demanding level of understanding. In this context Thomas becomes the hero of the piece, for he echoes that all too human incredulity which invites ‘seeing and believing’. But Jesus will invite Thomas to a new kind of seeing. Jesus is the one who with guiding hand, allows us to see that the spiritual and the physical, the past and the present, are all things become one in him. As the hymn says ‘Only believe and thou shalt see, that Christ is all in all to thee’. But firm belief is not so easy.
Doubting Thomas was I think, always a believer. Several chapters earlier in John’s Gospel, when the news reaches the ears of Jesus that Lazarus is dead, Jesus speaks at first of Lazarus being asleep, and that he must go and wake him. The apostles are concerned that Jesus will be stoned if he returns to Judæa. What follows tells us more about Thomas, and surprises us:
‘Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe; nevertheless let us go unto him. Then said Thomas, which is called Didymus, unto his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go with him, that we may die with him.'
Here Thomas is far from doubting, he is the one who is willing to follow Jesus unto death and to risk the consequences. It is the believing Thomas who cries ‘Let us go with him!” John 11.6. No wonder then, that in the eastern orthodox churches, Thomas is known not as a doubter but as ‘Thomas the Believer’. If we are honest, we might say that Christian Faith finds its centre of gravity somewhere between a kind of certainty and a kind of doubting. Many of our well-known hymns express this kind of faith, in which God is seen in hiddenness and inaccessibility. ‘Immortal Invisible God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes’, we sing. And in the hymn ‘Jerusalem the Golden’ comes a ringing endorsement of the existence of heaven with the admission that ‘I know not, O I know not, what solid joys lie there…’ RS Thomas sets before us the existence of faith and doubt as part of the one offering to God. This is his ‘Via Negativa’:
Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.
Via Negativa R.S. Thomas (1913–2000)
The Resurrection of Jesus was only slowly realised by the disciples. The disciples were not learned men. They struggled with their own limited intelligence and partial understanding. Theirs was a ‘faith seeking understanding’ one which unfolded and gained strength as it was revealed to them and became real for them. Just like us, really. Faith is never the finished article or a final statement. It grows and develops. The fact of the resurrection is not just a romantic adjunct to the life and death of Jesus. It is the arrival at an understanding of the identity of Jesus in all its fullness. Jesus is a truth that can only be apprehended by faith. After all, the new relationship which the Resurrection has founded is the one in which Jesus of Nazareth, the former rabbi and teacher, the healer, the worker of miracles, the one who died that shameful death on the cross is now (incredibly?) risen from the dead! He has become for Thomas and for Christians and for us for all time, “Lord and God!”. John tells us that he believed only on outward evidence, the witness of his own eyes and not by word of mouth, but my understanding is that he was a witness to something he had known all along.
An understanding of the Christian faith does not rest on belief and doubt in a theory. It is not about supposition but about reality. It is about us and what we are and why we are alive and what we are doing with our lives and whether we are becoming what we were made to be and whether we acknowledge that we are chosen and cherished by a loving Maker, who has sent his son to live among us, to die for us and to raise us to new life. This is the belief that the Christian risks. The risk as I may now say to myself, ‘Let me go with him, that I might die with him”. Let us go, then. There is nothing to fear. God has already taken the initiative. He has made his choice and we are now to make ours. We are not to doubt but only believe what we see with our own eyes and in the very depths of our being.
It is all too easy to forget that God has always known us, and God has chosen us – even when we slide into self-doubt and self-rejection. Knowing that we have been and are known by God, and that we have been chosen, This is the first thing we need to claim as we behold what we are and become what we receive in Him.