Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany
7th Jan 2018
Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany 2017 (Year A)
"When they saw that the star had stoped they were overwhelmed with joy". Matthew 2.9.
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, and this word is taken from the Greek epiphanos, which means ‘the showing of a sign’. The sign here is the manifestation of something startling, the appearance of God in the form of Jesus. The sign is the birth of the Messiah, the one which draws the three wise men to travel to see that which had been and promised by Isaiah and announced by the angel Gabriel; of the appearance of the Messiah as a baby, “wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a manger”. Of the impossible possibility of a child who is Emmanuel, ‘God with us’.
This sign then has its effect upon those who witness it. The sight of the child in the manger at Bethlehem is the one which changes the understanding of God’s identity and purpose for the world he has made for ever:
The heavenly babe you there shall find
To human view displayed,
All meanly wrapped in swaddling bands
And in a manger laid.
All glory be to God on high
And to the earth be peace
Good will henceforth from heaven to men
Begin and never cease.
We are not see the Story of the Three Wise Men then, as one which has been ‘tagged’ onto the Nativity for extra effect. It is has a crucial significance in the message of the coming of the Son of God. We continue to remember that the divine name given to Jesus is ‘God with Us’. His coming to birth has caused a rupture in what Eliot calls ‘the old dispensation’ . It has challenged the fixed separation of heaven and earth; and of the existence of God as all powerful and yet remote.
We returned to our places, these kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
TS Eliot The Journey of the Magi.
It suddenly begins to change lives and whole outlooks. The Letter of Paul to the Ephesians proclaims the new epiphany to include the gentiles (all people) who have, as he puts it ‘become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise of Jesus Christ’.
Like the wise men who have travelled from afar to see the Sign, we too trace that same journey in our own Christian lives. It is the journey we make in our hearts as we come to the place where we see and know Jesus and where we stop and stay. We may, out of the joy and the peace of his appearing, offer him the best gift we have to give, the gift of ourselves and of our lives; of the deepening of our witness and our time in the service of the Church. In this respect, the Methodist Church marks this time with an act of determined renewal in the life of faith, as it recites its own Covenant Prayer:
I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessèd God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
To speak like this is to speak of this Feast of the Epiphany not only as a Feast of Signs and mystery but also of self-dedication. Epiphany occupies a time and a place in which the divine presence is revealed to us. Then we are called to respond wholeheartedly. Christ’s Epiphany is our epiphany too, a necessary reminder of the need for daily conversion and the continual and joyful re-kindling of faith. This is needed so much at a time when the refreshment that the Christian faith offers our world; its spiritual oxygenation, is needed now more than ever.
Sermon for the Christmas Mass of Midnight 2017
24th Dec 2017
Sermon for Midnight Mass 2017
And this will be a sign for you: You will find the child wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a manger. Luke 2.12
In London’s Cavendish Square, opposite John Lewis’ store, there lies a great sculpture of the Virgin Mary and Child covering the entrance to a narrow and winding street called Dean’s Mews. The giant image, fashioned in lead, is there to tell the visitor of what lies at the end of the street, a small Roman Catholic Women’s community, The Society of the Holy Child. But the sculpture also speaks to London and the world. Its sculptor, Jacob Epstein, has Mary, standing lovingly behind her infant, directing us down to the little child, while Jesus has his arms held out to us in a gesture of exuberant openness. Here, Jesus opens his arms to greet us, as if waiting to run up to us hold us and embrace us. We are drawn toward this image because it promises something profoundly human and yet is directed away from itself. I well remember as a four year old meeting by own mother outside the hospital following the birth of my little brother, and she, while holding the baby, managed to clasp my shoulders for a great hug.
In this little child Jesus, God has come to show us that he has become one of us as we are beckoned closer to receive his embrace. And we are being called simply to respond. It’s ironic that as the crowds stumble out of the back of John Lewis’ Store in Oxford Street, laden with Christmas goodies, the divine embrace is being offered to them on the other side Square. I am minded of the words of Shirley Temple, the child star who once said, “I stopped believing in Santa when I was six. Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph”. And yet John Lewis continue to remind us, unlike Shirley Temple, that their goods are ‘never knowingly undersold’.
I have here a plaque which is a copy of similar plaques which decorate the walls of a 500 hundred year old foundling hospital in Florence, Italy. It is called ‘The Hospital of the Innocents’ the Ospedale degli Innocenti, where, as at Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital down the road in Bloomsbury there was a place provided, a ledge where unwanted babies were to be left in its care. The image of the baby Jesus is inspirational and stands for all of us. It’s an image which is all embracing. But we notice two things about this particular image. First, the way in which the baby, Jesus, is depicted as open armed and in a generous gesture of greeting. God’s love is open and boundless, it seeks to find us. It is the love ‘beyond all telling’ which is saying to our world “However you may mess things up, however you may put up barriers against my love, however you might betray me in little or greater ways, I love you and I will never forsake you. I will show my mercy to you and I will forgive you. You are mine and I am yours, and in this you can trust; in this you can place all your confidence and hope.This is now the message of Christmas. This is God’s gift to us tonight. God is not strange and distant but close to us. As this church enters upon its 130th year, it can tell stories of countless individuals for whom this church has felt for them that God has come that bit closer.
The second thing we notice about this image is that the baby is bound by swaddling bands, and this is an image for God’s Son, who as becoming human, will be bound by his fate. As the giver of God’s love, the grown man Jesus Christ will experience human love returned in some kind, but also his love, the love of God, rejected even unto his own death. He will be ‘bound in setting others free’. And yet the prevailing energy in the coming of Christ to an ambivalent world is one in which we experience God the Father’s love as an open one. It is a love, like all true loves, which takes a risk on love and its possible rejection for the sake of that same love.
Tonight the Christian world celebrates the God who offers the world himself in the shape and form and being of this little child. Many more people than Christians realise that the birth of Jesus speaks also to an understanding beyond the confines of the Christian religion and into a truer understanding of what it means to be human, what it means to be alive, what it means to take a risk on love. Christmas is a necessity. There has to be at least one day of the year to remind us that we’re here for something else besides ourselves. The open arms of the Christ child are that ‘something else’. God’s sign. They beckon to us now as we sing in the words of the well-known carol (with some excitement):
‘O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel’
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent
17th Dec 2017
Sermon for The Third Sunday in Advent (Year B)
John 1.6-8; 19-28.
He came as a witness to speak for the light. John 1.7
In today’s gospel we again meet John the Baptist. John is for ever defined by what he is not: he is not the light; he is not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet. He is ‘unworthy to tie the sandal’ of one coming after him. While he baptizes with water, the one he proclaims will baptise with the Holy Spirit. And he knows who this person is, for he is standing right there among the priests and Levites sent to question him; and yet the priests and Levites do not recognize him. The English court composer Orlando Gibbons composed a breathtakingly beautiful piece entitled ‘This is the Record of John’ which pictures John in an interrogation about his identity which is answered in the negative. And the emphasis on the negative identity of John alongside his passionate avowal of ‘The One Who is to Come’ serves to make his prophecy even more suspenseful and powerful.
John is transformed into the key figure at the beginning of Christ's ministry. Far from the 'being not' all the things that Jesus is, John is refreshingly certain about what he has to do. He is like a witness in court giving testimony - in fact the New Standard Revised Version of the Bible uses just this word ‘testimony’ to describe what John does here: 'This is the testimony given by John… I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.' No-one before or since has proclaimed God as John did.
In acknowledging that he stands in the prophetic tradition of Isaiah, John links us to the prophecies of our first reading today, that joyous vision of the good news of deliverance. The whole passage overflows with joy at the vision of a just king who frees the oppressed, comforts those who mourn, repairs ruination, and hates all the sin and wrongdoing which disfigure the world; a God who makes an everlasting covenant with his people, and promises them that they are the people whom the Lord has blessed. John's task as a witness, is to give expression to this glorious message: the time has come, the time is now, the Messiah is even now amongst you, prepare the way for His coming. This note of joy and rejoicing is so apt for today, as the wearing of this pink vestment signifies a rejoicing in the midst of the glorious solemnity of the Advent season. The Latin word ‘gaudete’ is one which signifies rejoicing.
From what cause do we as Christians rejoice? We rejoice because we are inheritors of the Christian tradition in all its fullness here at Holy Cross Church. We trace the Christian tradition back to the apostles, the ones Jesus called. We proclaim the existence of The One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church as utterly defining for our existence as Christians. The Church’s essential character is bound up in its tradition of unity and discipline. An essential part of this discipline lies in its faith in and obedience to the person of the Bishop. The existence of the Bishop is a block against any church becoming a sect.
St Irenaeus the first of the Christian theologians in c.160 wrote “Against The Heresies”. One of these heresies was that which ignored the authority of the Bishop.
Let nothing be done without the Bishop:
See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the priests as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no-one do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Church. Whatsoever the Bishop shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.
We have spent this year putting together our Vision for the future of this church and doing what John the Baptist bids us urgently do – to envisage the Kingdom of God on this earth and to work to bring it about. This coming year will, I predict, be the most momentous of our church’s recent history as we begin to harmonise the upstairs and downstairs uses of this great and holy building, enabling us to effect new ways of being the local church and forging new working relationships, new partners in the faith and reaching new constituencies. We will be restating our claim to be a church active in the service of our local community as these new opportunities for service open up. John the Baptist calls this morning for an opening up of the pathways that lead to and from God through an active willingness to make them plain. John’s voice may be seen as one still ‘crying in the spiritual wilderness’ but it is also resonant and life giving. It is the voice in harmony with God’s voice, a voice for our time and for all time and especially for this church at this God given moment in our history.
This is emphatically our present and forthcoming gaudete; our joy. We have found God in the Church and that he was and is and will remain for us, our true life’s meaning and its sure direction here, at Holy Cross and in the exciting time to come. My friends, watch and wait, as you must do this Advent, but rejoice now because the promise to come is also the promise which is being continually made in the active present.
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent
10th Dec 2017
The Second Sunday of Advent Year B
“The beginning of the Good News…” Mark 1.1
I said last week that this Advent Season opens up for the Church a new liturgical year with Gospel readings from St Mark. His Gospel is defined by its abruptness and brevity. The beginning of the Good News is for him a stark editorial marker. He ‘cuts to the chase’ and immediately introduces us to Christ by way of John the Baptist. There is no greeting, no preamble or eloquent or stylish opening verses. If in St John’s (later) Gospel we have the immortal and poetic line ‘…In the beginning was the Word’, here, Mark is writing in the immediate present rather than for the eternal past or for Christian posterity. “The Good News” for him is no less important than for John, but his writing is one which will be passed around the Christian community, providing the skeleton, the structure and the basic content of the Christian story; the kerygma. Mark’s is a proclamation of Good News before it’s a meditation or reflection. He is concerned to set the record straight concerning the coming of Jesus and of what this means to the average Christian. This requires direct language and an account of things which has the feel of immediate, eye-witness observation.
His first chapter might be entitled ‘preparation’. He introduces us to Jesus Christ through John the Baptist and so helps us to see that Jesus’ coming emerges out of a centuries old tradition of prophetic utterance. The one dominating piece of information for John the Baptist is the one which speaks of Jesus as the one who has been promised. John is also very emphatic in his need to place himself as less than Jesus, as the forerunner, and with a distinct role to play as the one who Baptizes Jesus. His life as the baptizer and Jesus’ life as Son of God mix and merge in the narrative of Christian salvation and yet are not to be confused.
Here lies the unravelling of the hope which had been promised long ago and which echoed down the centuries before Christ by the prophets and particularly by Isaiah. It is the promise of the coming of the Messiah, and this coming will be decisive:
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low,
The eve ground shall become level, and the rough places plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed…
Isaiah 40. 3-6.
The promise is to be ground-breaking but which can only be awaited in faith as a kind of longing. The subtle tension this represents is expressed by Isaiah the prophet and by George Frederick Handel’s in his famous ’Messiah’. Both produce words and music of unparalleled beauty and splendour. The prophet and the musician each combine to provide a sublime evocation of the idea of the coming of salvation as the fulfilment of a long held but barely understood promise. This sense of the fulfilment of past promise and of the wonder of the coming of Christ and are elements which make up the true meaning of this season of Advent. The message of St Mark’s ‘Good News Gospel’ sets the ‘known’, the whole, world upon a distinctly new course. All time now becomes God’s time, in which we no longer wait for him. Rather, it is He who now waits for us to come to Him, our source of life and hope. God is the One who desires to comfort us in our need, He is gentle and merciful and forgiving. He is to send Jesus to bring us back to Him.
As we recognise the Advent hope, so the beginning of our Old Testament reading from Isaiah provides the appropriate contrast to the abrupt beginning of Mark’s Gospel. In it, God is seen foremost as the Comforter, the One who is gentle and kind. The ‘Good News’ story is the one which envisions a relationship with God not of duress but of a gentleness which comes from love.
If Christianity is to be a religion marked by kindness, forgiveness , understanding and compassion it will be a religion which is most surely reflected in the image of the Messiah. The advent of the extreme Muslim groups like ISIS is but another manifestation of the way in which certain religious or political affiliations become fanatic, intransigent, fundamentalist, homophobic and violent in their outward manifestation. Theirs is an essentially defensive mentality which replaces revelation with the fantasy of their own God-like status. Their own triumph of the will, if you like. Such a fantasy has led to a ruthless and cruel inhumanity. The Advent hope and the signal note it brings of the transformation of human lives comes to us as a new kind of strength. The Gospel writer Mark, whose words we will be following in the coming Church year, reminds us that amid the many human tragedies that beset our world, not least the tragedies of our own misunderstanding, there is brought before us the promise of a new world made possible in the likeness of God who reaches out to find us and to find his home in us, whomsoever and wherever we may be.
Good news indeed…
(On A Theme by Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
Look how long
the weary world waited,
locked in its lonely cell,
guilty as a prisoner.
As you can imagine,
it sang and whistled in the dark.
It hoped. It paced and puttered about,
tidying its little piles of inconsequence.
It wept from the weight of ennui,
draped like shackles on its wrists.
It raged and wailed against the walls
of its own plight.
But there was nothing
the world could do
to find its own freedom.
The door was shut tight.
It could only be opened
from the outside.
Who could believe the latch
would be turned by a pink flower —
the tiny hand
of a new born baby?
Sermon for the Feast of Christ the King
26th Nov 2017
The Feast of Christ the King
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit
on the throne of his glory”. Matthew 25.1-2.
When we speak of ‘Christ the King’ we admit to a Kingship whose authority is a necessarily hidden one. But its substance is clear enough. Jesus rules from the Cross and he rules as a suffering servant. It is in the life of service both to our fellow creatures and in the natural worship we owe to God that underpins our true place on this earth. Jesus speaks as God when he says, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren (the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick person and the prisoner) you did it to me”. There is an authority at work here, but unlike the authority of the human will it is one which strikes at the heart of the human condition and calls forth the recognition of God not as something or someone ‘other’ but as incarnated in Jesus and by extension in my neighbour. This is an authority which is borne by Christ on the Cross as the ultimate in the giving of self for the other. The Jesus rules who rules from the Cross calls from us not blind obedience with threat of execution, but the just and gentle rule of the One who draws from us our real humanity and all its tremendous possibility. Human Kings in the past have been successful, doubtful or terrible in quality. The Jews in Jesus’ time in would have longed wistfully for the return of a great King like David or Solomon. Instead they got Jesus, who was to declare his Kingship in response to the questioning of Pontius Pilate. It was a declaration of the truth about ourselves, the truth that so often lies buried and denied and maimed and which God longs us to express and enjoy:
Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” John 18.37.
Many Kings and Rulers have been tyrants and truth deniers. On 5th December 1931. The Russian leader Stalin ordered the blowing up of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, and even had it filmed. Built on the banks of the great Moscow River, Stalin had decided that it was to become the site for a new Palace of Supreme Soviets, and the winning architecture looked like a giant multi layered wedding cake. It was massive, and on top of its highest tower was a huge statue of Lenin, conveniently just a little taller than New York’s Statue of Liberty. But it never came to be built. The official Soviet History owed this to the coming of The Second World War, but the real reason was that the site for its construction, on the banks of the river, consisted of sand. Sand could not hold a building of such immensity. Stalin, was the man of steel had attempted to build his house on sand! He had attempted to fill the apparent ‘void’ left after the destruction of a holy site, with a concrete monstrosity. The Cathedral has now been completely rebuilt on the same site, a site, yes, of sand, but on it built a the new holy church whose proportions lie in harmony with its natural surroundings rather than in opposition to them.
What the Collect for Christ the King expresses is the just and gentle rule of Christ based upon an experience of God which is a communication of at one ness with both the divine and the human. And so the collect for Christ the King has this put into a succinct form of wods:
Almighty and eternal God,
you have made of one blood all the nations of the earth
and will that they live together
in peace and harmony;
so order the course of this world
that all peoples may be brought together
under Christ's just and gentle rule;
through Jesus Christ our Lord
who is alive with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever.
The Divine Liturgies of the Russian Orthodox Church were resumed in the restored Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in 2000. The Cathedral stands as a testament to ‘just and gentle’ rule of God and to the resilience of the Russian spirit, and the light of truth with proportionate blessing.
I was speaking to someone yesterday who is ready to be quite frank about his Christianity. Without being awkward at all, he will, when the occasion feels right and natural, speak about the importance of Christian Faith. But he has admitted that most often he is met by a wall of indifference and even antipathy. Christianity is not deemed to carry authority. It seems not to command attention. This is often because his listeners are convinced they have no use for it. The connection is not made with the life of the human soul. This is because the framework around which modern life revolves is so often a surface one - the one bound to self-sufficiency and its partner consumerism. It is often difficult for the modern day enquirer to engage in a conversation regarding Christianity because it lies out of the range of possibility, and too many people no longer have an inner spiritual mind or practice from which to understand The Christian Faith.
In the Twenty-First Century, it will be more important than ever that the Church is a servant church, one in which church communities are places of understanding and of sanity, of community, of truth-bearing and of prayer, who witness to Christ through the offering of their time and patience and who are seen in the wider community to be places of natural ingathering. In such a way the presence of Christ is seen and known, and churches become the natural places of enquiry and inhabitation. They are above all to be hospitable places where all receive welcome, where all are included and where all may find space to be themselves and to spiritually prosper. Above all churches exist to unite all people in the coming together of the divine and the human agencies.They live under the just and gentle rule of a different kind of King.