Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent
25th Feb 2018
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent Year B (2018)
“He said all this quite openly” Mark 8.34
Three years ago, the former deputy prime-minister of Russia, Boris Nemptsov, was shot dead from a car on a Moscow street facing the Kremlin. We know now that he had predicted his eventual death. He had said some time before that this would happen, and his family spoke of this possibility only the week before it happened. In similar vein, Martin Luther-King and Ghandi both spoke of their own death by assasination as a matter of distinct possibility.
Jesus, too, speaks of his suffering and death quite openly to the disciples, as we learn this morning in our Gospel reading from Mark. And we are bound, on reflection, to admit that such predictions are startling and unsettling. They are filled with intensity and foreboding. When their predictions come true the fact of their death is experienced with added shock but with intense feeling. In such a way the second century church father Tertullian wrote that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”. The martyr’s death was a rebuke those who would have it otherwise and defend their own brand of ‘peace’ by force, rather like President Assad of Syria today. It remains true that
The people who have really made history are the martyrs.
If we follow this line of enquiry in relation to Jesus we would make him a mere adjunct of history, just another martyr, even though one of its great exemplars. Jesus’ prediction of his own death invites us into a deeper relationship with him, and through him, to God the Father. Jesus death is not just to be sacrificial but sets in being a whole new relationship between God and us. In revealing the fact of his death, Jesus is telling us that only by giving himself up to death can that he be revealed as the Son of God. This is a message which is tobe delivered in his own body and not by force of will or argument. Rowan Williams, in his simple commentary on Mark’s Gospel makes this plain:
The God who is going to change everything, change for ever the conditions in which human beings live, is a God who is ‘beyond’ power as we would like to understand it; a God who does not coerce belief or clinch arguments, but who repeatedly demands relation and trust.
This is the secret that Mark’s Jesus wants to disclose.
Rowan Williams, ‘Meeting God in Mark : Reflections for Lent’.
God is trusting us with his very being in His Son, Jesus. In Jesus we are all of invited to go with him and to become what he would have us be. We are to live in Him and not follow the dictates of our own selfish desires and fantasies. In he language of Mark’s Gospel we are to ‘take up our own cross and follow Him’.
Lent reminds us that this relationship will make demands upon us which might involve personal and other kinds of sacrifice. We can no longer behave as we please but receive from God the call to be his servants in the outworking of His salvation in Jesus. For this task we must ask for his grace,, perseverance, relying on God’s mercy, forgiveness and healing. It is in living for Christ and not for ourselves alone that we make his Cross evident in our world. He find our lives in their truest sense, only when we have learnt to let go of our lives and give them to God. But importantly, we do this through our own efforts alone.
Five centuries after the last supper, St. Augustine preached a sermon On the Eucharist (Sermon 57) in which he extended this imagery to include even us.
You are the body of Christ,” he said. “In you and through you the work of the incarnation must go forward. You are to be taken; you are to be blessed, broken, and given; that you may be the means of grace and the vehicles of the Eternal love.
As he holds the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood in mind, he tells the people,
“Behold what you are. Become what you receive.”
Behold what you are, become what you receive… Late twentieth century understandings of The Church understood her to be a Eucharistic community, in which all Christian people will become what they receive in Christ and empowered to make their own communities ones of human transformation and of hope.
What might this mean for us at Holy Cross? We all need to wake up to the fact of our being God’s Church in the first place. Church going should give way to Christian action on the ground, and we should be aware that we are God’s agents in the here and now for the establishment of a new world. We need to ask ourselves whether the name ‘Christian’ is for us just a by word or whether it truly informs our daily living and our commitment to this church.
Do I come to church on time and prepare myself to receive the sacrament?
Am I prepared to commit to the Lenten disciplines and services on offer this year?
Am I prepared to give this church more of my passionate time?
Am I ready to play my part in making this church a beacon of light and hope for King’s Cross?
Do I really care?
Jesus’ commitment is unto his own death. Though we can’t approach that kind of self-giving, we can, nonetheless, promise to give ourselves more fully to the church which is His body.
Sermon for the Sunday Next Before Lent (Transfiguration Sunday)
11th Feb 2018
Sermon for the Sunday next before Lent Year B
“And he was transfigured before them” Mark 9.10.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.
G M Hopkins
The Transfiguration of Christ on the mountain is not for the Gospel writer Mark, a theatrical effect, but one which introduces notes of awe and of wonder and draws us into itself. For Mark and Hopkins we are ‘falling into the hands of the living God’. It is a meeting with the Jesus who has become Christ. It happens right before our eyes. To see such things with the inner eye is to experience glory. The glory is enveloped in brightness, and yet reveals a terrible secret - of the Christ, the One who has fulfilled all things, even unto death and resurrection. The secret is disclosed in dazzling white and yet within thick shadow and dark cloud. Even though the Feast of the Transfiguration takes place in August, this Gospel reading is deliberately set before us as a key text for the Sunday before Lent. The mountain of Transfiguration the place of amazing appearances, and also of stark realities; of terrible truth. It points to the Cross even as it manifests the glory of God. As we sing the well-known hymn ‘Tis Good Lord to be Here’, there is already a strong sense of foreboding:
Fulfiller of the past,
Promise of things to be,
We hail Thy body glorified
And our redemption see.
This terrible truth-telling in the Transfiguration shows us that there is always the danger of not seeing the other side of things; of the existence and the seriousness of human suffering, of life as a struggle and of the need for forgiveness and the experience of much pain and adversity. This is the Cross of Jesus and it is our Cross, too. Jesus takes this Cross upon himself and it is the Cross of Jesus which is the glory that God reveals in the mountain-top. But this is a strange and difficult kind of glory. It is the one which brings us into contact with the living God. But this is the God who is vital, and whose influence upon us is as the double edged sword,
…piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart…” Hebrews 4.12
No wonder that this reading is set for the Sunday before Lent. It was not easy consolation that is provided here. Instead, there is the invitation to find our truest humanity in Christ and to find it through ‘the changes and chances of this fleeting world’. This is to begin to be honest with ourselves and toward God. To recognise life’s essential contingency. To begin to find in God that active love and the mercy we need to move us on. For we cannot stay on the mountain. It is a place of revelation and a vital and necessary point of departure.
I once went to the Louvre, the French National Art Gallery in Paris. At some point all visitors head towards one great painting, The Mona Lisa. She gazes impassively through bullet proof glass and is constantly surrounded by her own paparazzi – with cameras and continuous flashes of blinding white light. She has become like the namesake Madonna, a superstar. It is difficult to get near her. But with all the adulation, one wonders what is going on? What is it that is happening when thousands of tourists take photos constantly? There seems to be a manic rush to record it all, and while the photographer is snapping away to ignore its real presence. There is the attempt to capture it. To possess it. To take it away. The Transfiguration offers us the opposite of the blinding camera flash and the image you can put into your pocket. The appearance of Jesus in white light on the mountain-top is God’s revelation to his people, you and me, of his merciful love. In all we have to do or to suffer, God’s presence lies before us as and with it the promise of his holiness to surround us and to inhabit our inmost being. His face shines to show us the light of the revelation of the fullness of God…What is real is not looked at from exterior vision but from within the truth of what has appeared…
But how are we to bear true witness, especially as we approach the beginning of Lent? The Church offers us as individuals a way forward in the practice of Sacramental Confession. To tell it like it is. Though it has been derided and caricatured and is less practised by many, its effectiveness is very real. The costliness of our being more honest about what we are and what we do wrong is often too humiliating to bear. But this is a necessary humbling, a Cross, which provides us with an effective remedy. It provides a pathway to the restoration of the soul, often so damaged and maimed by our own essential pride. It is an attempt at an honesty from which new life may emerge. We trivialise this aspect of our lives at great cost to the integrity of the Christian Faith. The Transfiguration opens up on honesty to reality. It is what St Paul called
The light of the fullness of the revelation of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ”. 2 Corinthians 4.6.
It is a revelation of what lies most true for human nature. It provides the marriage between what the Old Prayer Book in its General Thanksgiving called ‘The means of Grace and the hope of glory’.
Sermon for the Second Sunday before Lent
4th Feb 2018
Sermon for the Second Sunday before Lent year B (2018)
“We have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1.14).
I said last week that this time in the Church’s calendar represents a tipping point. Even while we celebrated the Feast of Candlemass and blessed our Easter Candle, I had to remind you that we were being lead very surely into Lent. Today is now the Second Sunday before Lent and we have left Epiphany behind us. This movement is bound up in the word ‘glory’, which speaks not only of Epiphany joy and wonder but also of the Lenten glory that Jesus must win through his own suffering and death.
Paul, in this morning’s second reading reminds us that this movement has a human outcome. He calls it ‘making peace through the blood of the Cross’. This is the glory which emerges out of the crucible of Christ’s Passion. Out of this will emerge the truer glory which has the power to reconcile and to heal. This is of course is very strong theological language. It beckons us us into the more challenging territory of Lent. As Christians we ‘go with Jesus’. And we go, if we are honest, reluctantly. Despite this, we are being encouraged by our three readings this morning to ‘begin at the beginning’ and to consider the Creator God in whom our whole lives are intimately connected.
For the writer of Proverbs this connection gives ‘delight’ as he speaks of being with God at the moment of Creation. Somehow, God the Father’s creativity, as a ‘master worker’ and the singularity of the writer’s own life come together, and both belong profoundly to each other. As Paul was later to say, with as much joy: “Who can separate us from the love of God?” (Romans 8.35) When John wants to speak of Jesus he cannot escape that word ‘glory’ - he tells us that “we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1.14). This is what determines the Christian life as we are to live it. Not what we can do for God, but what God has already done for us out of his love for us. “To God be the Glory, great things he has done” as the hymn tells us. And when we have admitted this another ‘tipping point’ is to be recognised; the one which places God and not ourselves as the one great determining life influence.
Lent is to be the time not for spiritual self-improvement or expressions of narcissistic pride but for a relaxing and an easing of those tendencies which would have us believe that God is to be acknowledged but his influence shunned. The promise which Lent brings is the one which would bid us respond to God’s grace, God’s loving influence in all our lives. God’s intimacy. We respond as we acknowledge the divine initiative in all things. Of the God who has gone before and has already made complete that which we would imagine can only be completed by our own will power and in our own time. The well worn grace is still most meaningful and effective ‘For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful. Amen.
It was in thankfulness that this church came to be built and it is in thankfulness to God that it will grow and thrive. It is unusual for our parish meetings, normally given over to business of one kind or another, that today’s council meeting will be full of plans and hopes – of the forging of new partnerships and the transformation of the way in which we are able to use and share this building. He have been given gifts and in this I have become aware of the God, who beyond recourse to our own designs and desires, is experienced as the supreme provider. So much has happened in the past month and there is for the first time that I can remember in this church a remarkable momentum for opportuity. I have been privileged in one week to be a part of four separate community activities representing many different nationalities, and we now have a bid from a Chinese church to come and make this their place of Christian worship on Sunday afternoons.
The Church and its influence is needed in our communities more than ever and the influence of this church is far greater than might be seen with the eye. We communicate the love of God in many different ways. In this respect I want to congratulate Jonas and David on their interview with a ‘Church Times’ correspondent, Madelaine Davies, in which the message of the spiritual riches that can be found in this place was so delightfully expressed. Their witness to Christ in this Church was expressed very brilliantly. Thank you, Jonas and Michael, our Holy Cross ambassadors!
The acknowledgement of God as Creator is so vital because it is an expression of thankfulness from life’s true source, a joyful activity. As our joy in believing finds expression in our reaching out for the enrichment of our local community in committed service, so the existence and the love of God is being very surely proclaimed. We are acknowledging that it is God who gives; God who gives the increase, and once we respond to God’s provision of love, to grace as living truth, anything becomes possible.
Sermon for the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple (Candlemass)
28th Jan 2018
The Feast of the Presentation of ur Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple (Candlemass) 2018.
My eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared for all nations to see.
In today’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph and Jesus come enter the Temple to receive the purification rites as laid down in Jewish Law. The meaning of this event also concerns a second narrative concerning two elderly guardians of the Temple, Simeon, the old priest and the prophetess, Anna. Simeon and Anna provide a contrast to the young family of Mary and Joseph and their child Jesus. In the meeting of these two oddly matched couples, Luke tells us that this is no chance or ordinary meeting, even though it was traditional to present a boy child to the priest and for the mother to be ritually cleansed. This purification had its equivalent in The Church of England not so long ago in the so-called ‘Churching’ of women following a pregnancy. In the Jewish blessing and the cleansing ceremony there takes place in this story a meeting and a greeting between two religious epochs…The Old and New Testament worlds are shown to us in the one time, the one place and in the one child, Jesus. The meeting is expressed as the fulfilment of ancient prophecy and brought to bear in the prophecy of Simeon. He tells Mary that her child “is destined for the rise and fall of many in Israel,; a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed”. And then the sting “and a sword will pierce your own soul, too”.
Luke paints this message on the broadest possible canvas : not only of history, but of the Divine purpose. The Old Testament man Simeon is more than a mere bystander. In the closing days of his life, he is privileged to utter prophecy in the recognition of the child as a prayer to God the Father: “Mine eyes save seen thy salvation” he cries “which thou hast prepared before the face of all people…” And this is very moving, as we see the old man, coming to the end of his life, meeting the new born baby and witnessing the outcome of his own life’s longing. He sees his own salvation. And TS Eliot marks, in a poem ‘A Song of Simeon’, the great themes of life and death in the immensity of time and sets them alongside Simeon's completed life.
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no tomorrow.
TS Eliot ‘A Song of Simeon’.
Today is a Feast Day of Candles. There is always intended to be a procession in our churches as we follow Mary and Joseph into the Temple. In the carrying of candles, we bring the story to life in the manner of what the French have called a tableau vivant. We bring back into life things done and spoken long ago, and of the holding in our hands, as Simeon held in his arms, ‘The Light to Lighten the nations, and the glory of God’s people’. By these means we, after all these years, we claim real ownership of those things which this meeting offers and proclaim them as Epiphany.
Last week I was in York, and waited on a cold morning for a free guided tour, which was to take place at 11 am. The tour guide came up to us and sais “You are an exceedingly privileged group. You are the first group of pilgrims who will see this morning the newly restored great East Window since it was covered some ten years ago. You will see this glorious miracle, the largest medieval stained glass window in the world, all wrought in glass, as the medievals saw it. Well, we couldn’t believe our luck, and nothing could have prepared us for what we saw; this miracle in glass. We were told that Medieval Church glass is exceedingly rare, and that York Minster has 40% of the Medieval glass contained in the whole country. It is, literally, a wonder of the world, and a wonder to behold. It tells in stained glass the story of the Christian salvation from Creation in panel after panel of images shot through with animation and narrative power and luscious colour.
On that day, standing before this immense, miracle window, my eyes were ‘seeing salvation’ through the same human eyes, minds and souls of those for whom this window was the expression of a passionate avowal of their Christian Faith. This same passion is uttered by Simeon to literally ‘bring down the curtain’ on the Old Testament and ancient prophecy. Now the promise is made in Jesus. The Light which illumines the light and dark places of this world’s being and which shines on me, now, in particular.
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Epiphany
21st Jan 2018
Epiphany 3 Year B
The Wedding feast at Cana.
Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory. John 2.11
This holy season of Epiphany contains a natural kind of exuberance, like the bubbles in a glass of champagne. For Epiphany is the coming into being of Christ as the glorious manifestation of power and presence. Outward and seemingly ordinary events become charged with the presence of the Creator God and burst into life. The Baptism of Christ was accompanied by the opening of the heavens and the voice of God crying ‘This is my Son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased’. We understand the Season of Epiphany as the beginning of several epiphanies or glorious manifestations. The coming of Jesus Christ as our Saviour has its own unstoppable momentum,
You go to my head,
And you linger like a haunting refrain
And I find you spinning round in my brain
Like the bubbles in a glass of champagne.
Writers Teddy Randazzo, Bobby Weinstein.
You may think this champagne image a bit frivolous, until you realise that today’s Epiphany happening, the turning of the water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana, is the first of Christ’s miracles. And because it is the first miracle it has great significance for the Christian Church in the manifestation of God’s glory. It comes to us in the writing of Archbishop Michael Ramsey:
The glory of God is the living man
And the life of man is the vision of God.
St Irenaeus, inscribed on Archbishop Ramsey’s gravestone.
Christ’s life is to be our example, and it is to be a life lived to the full, brimmed full of expensive and exuberant love. It is a life of intimate connectedness and friendship and personal understanding and generosity. And this is revealed, sensationally, at the Cana wedding feast in the miraculous supply of wine. This is Christ’s epiphany as loving provider and life giver, or in the words of one of modern hymns, as ‘The Lord of the Dance’. “I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be, and I’ll lead you all in the dance,” said he... The psalmist puts it in more elevated terms when he says “With you, O God is the fountain of life, and by your light we see light”. (36, 7b,8). God is the fountain of life and the waters of life dance to the tune of his voice. He is, before all else, a life giver.
Parties of whatever kind, and specially wedding parties, where members of different families are meeting in an intimate atmosphere as strangers, need some social ‘oiling’ to get them going. In one of Alan Bennett’s plays, ‘Single Spies’, none other than our Queen Elizabeth II is featured, and we overhear a conversation that she’s having with the Keeper of her paintings. ‘Of course’ she says dryly, ‘When I meet people they’re always on their best behaviour, and when people are at their best they are invariable at their worst, and this is so fatiguing...’ The provision of good wine or drink is both an emollient, an ice-breaker, and also an act of celebration in itself, a toast to the bride and groom.
In the wedding feast at Cana, we are being given us a foretaste of the life that he has come to bring. His ministry is to be intimately bound up with the lives of those around him, and he is to promise his followers as he promises us in this Eucharist, not just life, but life in its fullness. His and our cup of life through the Holy Spirit is to run over, and promise deep and unspeakable joy.
In Christ we have fullness of experience at the earthly level. The fount of life is also the God who refreshes us within the very heart of ourselves, and warms our hearts with his gracious and generous love. There is no part of our lives that cannot be loved back into union with ourselves, with others and with God. However stubbornly we play dead with those parts of our nature that need healing, God beckons us into loving union with him through the life of his Church. This is why the Church has been referred to as ‘the bride of Christ’ : The Wedding Feast at Cana speaks of Christ’s willingness to espouse his ministry to the guests then and to us now, as he calls you and I into union with our maker. The only joy worth having is the joy of union with the Creator, and not with artificial substitutes.
Christ meets us and we meet him in this Eucharist, and as we say our prayers to God here and elsewhere and as we continue our journey in the Christian Faith, and as we encounter God here we become aware too that there is a joy to be experienced which lies beyond mere pleasure or satisfaction. There is a life to be lived which takes us beyond mere existence for its own sake. We have, after all come to church because we know that this deeper, richer seam of life is available to us in the worship of the Church and in union with Christ. We are living not for ourselves alone but for him who gave himself for us. For Him who reconnects us and our lives with our Maker. With him who, even though we still have to struggle with all that life throws at us, nonetheless find their meaning in Christ. It is in Christ that God can, in us, accomplish more than we can imagine or ask. And the sign that this joy, this glory, is present, is sure. As Isaiah says to us in this morning’s OT reading, “As the bridegroom rejoices in the bride, so God will rejoice in you”. (62.5).
But in the meantime we struggle with what we have to bear in the knowledge and good purposes of his grace...
Some words of Archbishop Michael Ramsey, scribbled in note form on the days leading up to his ordination to the priesthood in 1929:
‘My grace is sufficient for thee’. How do I need to look away
From self to God; I can only find satisfaction in Him.
My heart to love Him; my will to do His will;
My mind to glorify Him; my tongue to speak to Him and of Him;
My eyes to see Him in all things;
My hands to bring whatever they touch to Him;
My all only to be a real ‘all’, because it is joined in Him.
And this will be utter joy – no man can take it away.
Self, self-consciousness, self-will, the self-centre cut away,
So that the centre which holds all my parts is God.