Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter
8th Apr 2018
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter Year B
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 bloodied 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 with dirty finger nails. In a fascinating detail, Jesus guides Thomas’ finger into the wound. The scene 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 the Christ’s wound ourselves. The spiritual reality of the resurrection is to be experienced in the flesh. The Resurrection of Jesus presents for the mind of the sceptic a difficult or even impossible level of understanding. In this context Thomas becomes the hero of the piece, for he echoes that all too human incredulity which befalls the one for whom faith and wonder exist on the unreachable or neglected side of the human imagination. But Jesus is there as the abiding reality, for Caravaggio he is bathed in light. He is the one who with guiding hand, allows us to see that the spiritual and the physical, the past and the present, have become one in him. As the hymn says ‘Only believe and thou shalt see, that Christ is all in all to thee’. But belief is not a simple business. Thomas makes it look very easy.
But for Thomas the disciple, this was not always the case. Several chapters earlier in John’s Gospel, when the news reaches the ears of Christ that Lazarus is dead, Jesus speaks at first of Lazarus as 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.' John 11.16.
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…’ Thomas sets before us the existence of faith and doubt as part of the one offering to God. This is echoed in the poetry of R S Thomas as he describes the idea of faith as both presence and absence, and as the confounding of that desire as TS Eliot put it, to ‘verify, instruct yourself, inform curiosity, or carry report…’:
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
Via Negativa R.S. Thomas (1913–2000)
The Resurrection of Jesus was only slowly realised by the disciples. The Gospel of Mark, which we have been following this year, is full of their misunderstandings. The disciples are not learned men. They struggle with their own partial understanding. But the Gospel writer is able in this way to make a larger point about the nature of human perception itself. The point is that faith in Christ is never the finished article or a final statement. It grows and develops and may grow deeper and more mature. More vision and trust may be granted. 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. After all, the new relationship which the Resurrection has founded is the one in which Jesus of Nazareth, the rabbi and teacher, the healer, the worker of miracles, the one who died that shameful death on the cross is now risen from the dead! He has become for Thomas and for Christians for all time, “Lord and God!”
In the final analysis, 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 say to myself, ‘Let me go with him, that I might die with him”. Let us go, anyway. There is nothing to fear. God has already taken the initiative. He has made his choice and we are now to make ours. But with the caveat that we are not to doubt but only believe.
“Long before any human being saw us, we are seen by God's loving eyes. Long before anyone heard us cry or laugh, we are heard by our God who is all ears for us. Long before any person spoke to us in this world, we are spoken to by the voice of eternal love.” .
Sermon for Easter Day 2018
1st Apr 2018
Easter Sermon for 2018
We are bound to say as we now arrive at this glorious Easter time, (in the words of the song) ‘What a difference a day makes’. Within the space of three days, everything for the Christian Church changes. And in the passing of this brief period of time -- of Holy Week and now of Easter, the Church has endured the pain of death of Jesus and now all is transformed. The Church’s proclamation is the one which has proceeded out of the death of Christ, and through his Glorious Resurrection she proclaims new life for the world. It has all been encapsulated into a week, and the saving events into three days.
The Holy Week days we have lived through cannot be experienced separately but together. They define The Christian Church, and this evening’s Easter Liturgy allows us to celebrate new life in Christ as we recapitulate the saving events of our Faith. This faith emerges out of the life that Easter makes possible, and it is ushered in as a flame, flickering delicately, The Light of the Risen Christ proclaimed as “Christ our Light” and then acknowledged and honored in the glorious Easter song The Exsultet…
Then there is a Liturgy of the Word for the recapitulation of The Christian Faith in the tracing of our origins. It begins with The Creation Narrative in Genesis, and then proceeds to the Exodus and Abraham and then the coming of the One who will promise us the God not our of religious duty alone, but his own being from the communication of one heart speaking to another. This Easter Liturgy is a profound celebration of the sacramental life that God has granted us through the blessing of the font, of the baptismal water and of the renewal of our baptismal vows. Everything is to find its renewal through the grace which is Easter. We then celebrate the Eucharist, dominated by the great Easter candle…The light of Christ which now shines on a world redeemed by God’s action in Jesus Christ dead and risen from the dead.
I was in Waitrose this afternoon and saw the sad sight of the Easter eggs which were becoming too difficult to be sold. They sat on the shelves, forlorn, with their expensive price tickets waiting to suffer the ignominy of being reduced by half, or even more when the supermarket’s ‘Easter effect’, marketed since the end of February, becomes redundant and no longer sales worthy. A salesperson was carrying one of those guns which slap a red sticker on the buns as ‘reduced by half’. We live in a supermarket economy in which sell-by dates mix with sales trends and Waitrose’s own seamless thread which runs both vaguely with and absurdly counter to the Church’s calendar – how else can we explain the fact of hot cross buns sold in Marks and Spencer’s at Christmastime? In the popular mind’s eye, very little would be known about Maundy Thursday or Good Friday except as odd adjuncts to Easter. Easter-time stretches out from soon after Christmas. Lent is passed by, forgotten; after all how do you market Lent? A little speech was made after a show three weeks ago at a local theatre in which we were all wished a Happy Easter on the Second Sunday of Lent! And so we experience this disjunct between a popular, commercial culture which no longer remembers this time of Holy Week and Easter.
For Christians this is very strange. For this is the most important time of the Christian Year, one in which Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday are each and alone significant in very specific ways. Each also belong to one another, and they all belong to that part of The Church’s life which places a premium on the hallowing of time. The Church’s calendar allows us to inhabit time in a way in which it is not thrown away or discarded as a fad or whimsy. The Church commemorates and celebrates and marks time. The passing of time is not made without its being offered to God in and through his Son. And this for the Church is, in the words of The Bishop of London ‘deeply inspiriting’. It is life-giving and is a way of living the Resurrection in the present and in the time to come. This is because, through our worship, it finds its place within our hearts. And so we don’t speak of the ‘Easter Effect’ or ‘The Easter Experience’ without its having been inscribed on our hearts and expressed in our actions. In this way we follow in the footsteps of the original resurrection witnesses. . The Easter joy is held in our hearts and proclaimed to our communities as joy and life and hope and freedom. It exists for a transformed humanity.
The contrary movement is the experience of an ‘Easter’ with the true Easter taken out, and we return to our unsold but expensive eggs! We see a society which no longer memorizes Easter as the time of Resurrection. It has been important in this church to celebrate The Resurrection through a preceding death. This action does not seem to be immediately gratifying and is puzzling to many. But it is for the Christian quite natural. But it can only be known and experienced through the eye of faith. Easter joy comes to us as a joyful surprise. It is like that of the followers of Jesus who come to the empty tomb and hear the words of the angel “Why seek the dead among the living? He is not dead. He has risen, as he said he would. Go therefore to Galilee where you will find him’. Easter activates hope.
The joyful message of Easter is that God’s time and our time have become everlastingly one.
Now, in Christ His Son, our hearts beat as one!
Easter, George Herbert
Rise heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
With him mayst rise:
That, as his death calcined thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more, just.
Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.
The crosse taught all wood to resound his name,
Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.
Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song
Pleasant and long:
Or, since all musick is but three parts vied
O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.
I got me flowers to straw thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.
The Sunne arising in the East,
Though he give light, and th’ East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.
Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we misse:
There is but one, and that one ever.
Sermon for Palm Sunday 2018
25th Mar 2018
Palm Sunday 2018
Holy Cross Church
The liturgy for Palm Sunday takes on a distinctly dramatic form as we meet this morning and gather with our palms to process around the church. And as we do this, we sing All Glory Laud and Honour, a hymn of praise to Christ’s majesty, as a reminder that that this Palm Procession is taking us into a Jerusalem gate way. As we do this, we are entering Jesus’ fateful Passion, his trial, his death on the Cross and his Resurrection from the dead.
Today’s Palm Sunday begins Holy Week. It is called holy because it embodies in Jesus Christ the love of God the Father in the sacrifice of his Son’s body and the outpouring of his Son’s blood. This is what the old prayer book termed, ‘a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world’. Holy week contains everything that necessary to Christian Faith. It lies at the heart of what we believe as Christians: that God the Father sent his son to die for our sins and to rise again from the dead. He did this as a costly act of love and to show us that we are loved by God even before we know we are loved. And on this day, Palm Sunday, and at this time, before we walk with Christ into Holy Week, it is the Church’s duty to ask you in the strongest terms to make time to come to the Holy Week liturgies. To commit yourself, as best as you are able, to the worship of the Church as we observe the holiest week in the Christian calendar. You can only know the mystery of Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection by entering into it and by finding it as you would find something buried within. We are here this morning readying ourselves to encounter the living Lord as he shows us the way to the Father’s glory. We are bidden by the words of Thomas before the raising of Lazarus when he said, ‘Let us go with him that we may die with him’.
Jerusalem today is a place of terrible contrasts. It is a jumbled up mix of warring factions. The old city is bounded by Jewish, Christian Muslim and Armenian quarters. The Church of the Holy Sepulcre stands in the middle of the city as the most holy Christian site in the world, and built over Golgotha, the place of the skull, where Jesus died on the Cross. But even in this Holy Church, differing Christian denominations fight over contested spaces from within the building, and there are often angry scuffles and even violence. Nearby is a busy souk or market, with smells of spices and coffee and freshly slaughtered meat, as well as hundreds of shops selling Christian souvenirs and trinkets.
Well may Jesus wept over Jerusalem. But it is to this Jerusalem of human chaos and doubtful charm, a crazed and yet indifferent kind of Jerusalem, and a holy Jerusalem too, that Jesus enters on Palm Sunday. As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city across from the small but deep Kidron Valley, he wept over it and said, "If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace -- but now it is hidden from your eyes. Luke 19.41-42.
In the church of the Holy Sepulcre in Jerusalem, the site of Jesus’ tomb you may queue for hours to get to the place where Jesus died on the cross, and then watch others burying their one arm into the ground and down to the rock below and then they touch Golgotha. You stand waiting and impatient and wonder why you’re waiting. Then it is your turn to reach down and touch the rock on which the Cross of Christ once stood. You realise that for a few brief seconds you are the only person in the world touching that rock. The experience is immediate and was for me, overwhelmingly moving.
This is the famous stone
that turneth all to gold;
for that which God doth touch and own
cannot for less be told.
George Herbert ‘Teach Me My God and King’
Likewise a small group of Greek nuns each morning anoint the large stone on which the dead Christ was thought to have been laid with scented holy oil. You can catch its powerful fragrance as you watch in wonder.
This morning we go to join Christ in Jerusalem, where we know he will meet suffering and death. We go with him just as we are; knowing all the deficiencies we bring to the task of living and loving. We go at first reluctant; but nevertheless in faith, aware of God the Father’s love going before us, guiding us and lighting our path and drawing us deeper into the wounded, sacred heart of Jesus. You are invited in this Holy Week to enter into these mysteries, to walk with Christ, to wait and watch with Christ, to sit at the foot of the cross, to wait at the tomb, and to experience the joy of his Resurrection and your resurrection. “If we are united with him in a death like his, we will surely be united within him in a Resurrection like his”. (Romans 6.5).
But for now, as we enter on Holy Week we pray:
Holy and strong,
Holy and immortal,
Have mercy upon us…
Sermon for Lent 4 (Mothering Sunday)
11th Mar 2018
Sermon for Mothering Sunday (4th Sunday of Lent)
This morning the Church observes not just one but three commemorations, namely the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Refreshment (‘Laetere’ or ‘Rejoice’) Sunday and also Mothering Sunday. It seems eccentric that this should be so, and that a rare liturgical colour, rose , or pink, should set the tone for a Lenten Sunday which provides not for a deepening of intensity in our Christian observance of Lent but for an outburst of what in Latin is ‘Laetere’ or joy. Combine all this with Mothering Sunday and the sense of mid-Lenten eccentricity is complete. In typical English fashion, we keep the tradition of remembering and honouring our Mothers from days when servants, many of them older children or adolescents, were allowed this Sunday in Lent to return home to their mothers. If they worked in a big house, a kindly cook might well have baked Simnel Cakes as a seasonal offering for the servants to take to their mothers.
The Church seems at first to have made things even more complicated by offering us a choice of two Gospel readings. One is Simeon’s prediction to Mary that her child Jesus would suffer and that ‘a sword would pierce her own soul’. The second Gospel takes us to the Cross and to the suffering Christ, who even from the place of agony encourages a new and future relationship between his beloved disciple John and his Mother, Mary, “Behold thy Son” and “Behold thy Mother”.
As we begin to understand these Gospel accounts we find that they are complimentary and speak of all those things which Lent, Mothering Sunday and Refreshment Sunday express. And it is this: Any experience of a close and loving and committed relationship is at some time or another going to demand of us a costly love. The Gospel message swings between love as consolation and as desolation. Any mother or father or husband, wife or lover knows how painful it is to have to have to relinquish, to let go or to suffer the death of one who has been our life and our love. Such an experience strikes at the very heart of what we are. For parents this might commonly involve the son or the daughter who leaves home as a young adult and away from the childhood home, just like the Victorian child servant. Equally there are times when the young, having ‘fled the nest’ themselves feel homesick and very alone. For others in middle age there may come the death of a parent or parents. For some, the break-up of a past relationship continues to be painful and some of its effects do not seem to be relieved with the passing of time. For the elderly there are the many little and bigger losses that come with encroaching frailty and the loss of faculties once taken for granted, and of the deaths of contemporaries.
The two Gospels offered allow for an understanding of human loving which inevitably involves pain. But this is not to be the end of the matter. We are reminded that, even from the Cross, our Saviour Jesus Christ offers new life and proclaims aloud that even out of great sadness and even death, the possibility of new relationships and new understandings and new hope is being promised by the dying Saviour on the Cross. ‘Behold thy Mother’; ‘Behold thy Son’. In the Cross life and death mixes and merges in the one sacrifice.
God’s life and our lives and loves mix and merge in the one faith, the one hope and the one love. In the same vein the prayer for the mixing of wine and water at the Eucharistic Offering outlines Christ’s sacrifice for a deepening of trust in the outpouring of time with the healing of wounds. ‘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’. This is a prayer which perfectly betokens the love of God as one which is always offered to share. The promise of this sharing is that it will be renewing and transforming.
New and refreshed relationships may emerge among those who experience the terrible pain and distress of death and destruction, with those who also stand alongside and with them, ready to offer their trained and disciplined human skills and compassionate care. God’s love remains constant and present in any and every danger but it is heartening to see practical love in action. In it, we see the formation of new hope and trust in our common humanity. We witness such actions as they counter the malicious evil with dedicated care and professionalism.The deepenign of relationships occurs when they hold out the possibility of gracious and committed loving in the journeying on...
Our holy English mother, Mother Julian of Norwich observed that “The dear gracious hands of God our Mother are ever about us”. This might seem fantastical given the disasters that often befall our world, but nonetheless our own instinct as Christians is find love’s meaning in God and to remain steadfast in the faith to which we are continually being called. We are called, beckoned to come to God, just as the servants journeyed out for the day to meet their own mothers and to enjoy the communion of their love. This is the ‘laetere’, the joy-infused, integrated life of love which Christ which this morning speaks to us on the Cross through the lives of his Mother, Mary and the beloved disciple, John. “Behold thy Mother, Behold thy Son. The Cross still beckons us at this time, and through our mid to late Lenten observance, we are being drawn inexorably toward it.
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent
4th Mar 2018
The Third Sunday of Lent Year B
The Cleansing of the Temple
“Zeal for your house will consume me” John 2.20
We can only imagine why Jesus became so angry that he overturned the tables of the money changers and drove everyone out of the Temple. He was literally consumed with anger. This is not the Jesus we are accustomed to, the one who appears to be so serene and self-controlled. Could this be Jesus losing it?
Jesus comes to disturb and to establish a new order. The destruction of the Jewish Temple is an historical fact. It happened in AD70. We know that John wrote this gospel in around AD100 - some thirty years after the Romans totally destroyed the Jerusalem Temple. They had raised it to the ground and drove out all its inhabitants. The Temple, which once lay at the heart of Jewish worship and culture, was suddenly no more. Jerusalem lay in waste and ruin. The Temple itself was actually worshipped as a sign of the inviolability of the Jewish religion and the guarantor of its future existence. The destruction of the Temple tore this kind of faith apart. Why then, does John mention this non-existent temple thirty years after its destruction? Could it be that John sees the destruction of the temple as a way of purifying Judaism? This might be going too far, but he seems critical of temple worship for its own sake and particularly its commercial aspects. Its destruction was followed by the so called diaspora, the scattering of the Jewish people across the known world. For the Jewish people there was no longer a religious centre, a place lying at the geographical and spiritual heart of their existence. They were destined to be wanderers, which was their lot until the founding of the State of Israel in 1947.
John’s message goes deeper than this, however. We have a clue in St Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, written before John’s Gospel and making a reference to the human body as a temple for the Holy Spirit:
Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
1 Corinthians 3.16
These words were written by St Paul twenty years before the destruction of the Temple in around AD50. Paul uses the temple image to speak about the state of the human soul. The message couldn’t be more direct as the idea of Temple is taken to signify that which bears within it the true spirit of God and then Paul goes on to say to his listener ‘you are that temple’. It is in this way that
Jesus’ own prediction of the temple which is his body, will be destroyed only to be raised up in three days. He comes not to abolish existing Jewish understandings but to bring them to fulfilment in His person. By predicting his death and resurrection he is establishing a new centre of gravity. The Temple is now become the inviolable human soul.
In a world in which body image and body consciousness is so evident it is refreshing to be reminded that the body has a particular kind of sanctity. It has been natural for Christian writers to draw a natural and creative relationship between the body and the soul. Last week’s collect for Lent 2 expresses it best:
Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended against all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
So then, we have the idea of the Temple of Jerusalem, the destroyed edifice, being superseded in Christ in the idea of the ‘temple of the body’. It is the body of Jesus which, when sacrificed in the Cross, will be God’s way of drawing us into a new relationship with Him.
“When I am lifted up I will draw everyone to myself”. John 12.32.
The 2014 film ‘Selma’ remembered the race riots in Selma Alabama, the worst of which took place on March 7th 1965. The police fired tear gas and drenched the black protesters with water cannon. All was mayhem on that day. It was a desperate action on the part of the state police against fellow citizens but it was also a cruel and vain one. Significantly the police violence was being filmed on national television, and the majority of American people reacted against this assault on their fellow Americans because it was wanton, brutal and vindictive. The wake-up call lay in the deep questioning of whether a country that deemed itself civilised actually was so. The brutalising of bodies was a visual reminder of the failed brutalising society. Lying deep within the life of the person is the soul, of which the body is but the outer receptacle. The treatment of the body then becomes a profoundly moral matter in this respect. It was necessary to cleanse the temple or live abjectly.
It was as though they all began to say, with Jesus after Selma
“Zeal for your house has consumed me”.
The Cleansing of the Temple
Come as you came this day, a man in anger
Unleash the lash that drives a pathway through
Face down for me the fear the shame the danger
Teach me again to whom my love is due.
Break down in me the barricades of death
And tear the veil in two with your last breath.