Sermon for the Second Sunday of Trinity
10th Jun 2018
Sermon for Trinity 2 Year B
“He did not speak to them except in parables”
The telling of stories has always been with us and its beginnings are lost in the mists of time. We know the Bible to be not one book but many books, and also letters, diaries and eye witness accounts. But mostly the Bible is bound by the story of human salvation as we begin with Genesis and human origins right through to the dream in Revelation of the vision of a heavenly city, a New Jerusalem. ‘It begins in a garden and ends in a city’. But what drew me as a child to the Bible was the way in which its good stories are a vital part of what makes us human and what makes God God - Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Noah and the ark, David and Goliath, the Crossing of the Red Sea, the Witness of Job, and then in the New Testament the Raising of Lazarus all emerge out of a body of story-telling which provide for the endless telling and re-telling of the eternal and truths which govern our existence.
For the writers and readers of the Bible, are tracing the the history of human salvation. The statue of David in the Accademia gallery in Florence and the Mona Lisa in the Louvre , Paris are works of art which have an everlasting quality. They stand for the truth of our everyday existence as they marry their amazing reality with their understanding of the human longing for truth. They communicate a deep truth which has an everlasting quality. No amount of seeing and re-seeing, reading or re-reading can ever exhaust the meaning of what is being conveyed or intended. We see through what has already been provided for us to see, and we are delighted.
Of course there are so many aspects of human life that cannot be put into words. But that has not stopped us from trying! Words can convey so much. But what underlies language is also important. The deeper resonances. When Jesus speaks in parables, he is saying something to us that we already know. But we love a story, and a story is a very good way of communicating an important truth. Much of the early Christian witness was based on this kind of truth telling or direct witness. These stories were life giving.
When we look at the Gospels we are not looking at the strict biography of Jesus, even though the Gospels have biographical elements in them, and the four Gospel writers agree on many of the same happenings in the life of Christ. The Gospels treat biography as a necessary but it’s a secondary consideration. The first consideration is that the Gospel is theology. We are being told about God, and of how we see and experience God in the life of Christ. With this lies also the Gospel as Christian teaching, and Jesus likens the faith of the Christian to the planting of a mustard seed, the tiniest of the seeds, which may grow into a vast tree. The seed is a simple figure of speech, and paints a picture in the mind’s eye. This is far removed from ‘literal truth’ or ‘fundamental truth’. It does not treat the individual reader or listener as a foil or a dummy. It expects a human response which is direct and committed.
It became necessary in a recent exhibition of reliquaries and paintings at The National Gallery to state that such and such works of art were loaned from places of worship, Cathedrals and churches, and were therefore not to be solely regarded as art objects, but as objects of veneration. It is in this sense the when Jesus speaks in parables he is communicating in a language which speaks of this world but which also establishes the existence of faith and as that which reaches out beyond itself to find itself. It is part of our knowing and recognising but also it lies beyond this. But this also allows us to understand that we see not only with our eyes or our brains but with deeper instincts and an inner eye; the eye of faith.
The Bible can be regarded as just a type of religious text or it can be regarded as The Book of Life. If we choose the former then we relegate the Bible and its teaching to one of those posh volumes, with fake leather binding that you can order in instalments and sit on your shelves trying to look grand, never read, but largely ornamental. If we see the Bible on the other hand as a Book of Life, then there is no limitation. It may speak to us in our own lives as they are found. Many Christians I know supplement their church going and their prayers for a small booklet which can be easily ordered and which provides for daily readings from the Bible with brief commentaries. Many have discovered by these means that Bible is not relegated to the ‘dry as dust’ section but waters and nourishes and provides a seed-bed into which the mustard seed of our growing and perhaps hesitant faith may find watering and refreshment.
In speaking in parables Jesus is admitting the need for a deeper understanding of the truths of our existence. It was Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell who observed that
We live I believe in a world of surfaces.
The speaking in parables provides a way of apprehending what St Paul described as the ‘length, the breadth, the height and the depth’ (Ephesians 3.18) of our existence and to know it through a lifetime’s study and pondering. Jesus is the One who allows someone like TS Eliot to see this as a never ceasing from exploring over a lifetime. This holds for us the promise of finding that place where we started from, the place of our own origin and truth, and of arriving at that place perhaps for the first time.
To see the truthful things of God, whether or not embedded in mystery, whether seen through a glass dimly or whether enjoyed in the re-reading of old and worn parables, is for us the implantation of the mustard seed. In faith and in trust we pray that the Creator, the Giver and the Sustainer who is God will provide for our deeper understanding and for its increase.
Sermon for the First Sunday of Trinity
3rd Jun 2018
Sermon for the First Sunday of Trinity Year B
“The Sabbath was made for Man and not Man for the Sabbath” Mark 2.27
When Jesus heals the man with the withered arm on the Jewish Sabbath all hell was let loose!
Sabbath made for Man, not Man the Sabbath.
Sabbath as Day of Rest, Special Day, Quiet day. A challenge to the Pharisees and the old Law. A scandal.
40 Years ago on Sundays in Plymouth. Going to church and a dead quiet city centre: Sunday lunch and Sunday tea… It was definitively a religious day.
A change took place in the 1980s and he commercial interest held sway as did the call to liberate the traditional Sunday from the quietness and rest and substitute this for all shops open and the opportunity to grow what became known as ‘leisure opportunities’. Someone said that shopping malls would become the new consumer cathedrals.
This presented a challenge to churches in the rise of what we might call the overriding secular interest and the demand for its greater freedom of choice. It could easily be viewed negatively and in a reactionary way and this would be understandable. But on the other hand this movement toward busy and open Sundays was a challenge to see churches and the Sabbath o Sunday in a new and challenging light.
Parish – Ancient area of ecclesiastical influence and jurisdiction becomes:
Parish – Area of compassionate care for those living within the parish boundaries (and even beyond them) and particularly at the weekend - a time not covered by many social agencies, and many very needy people, including the homeless and the destitute and the elderly, being left at this time to fend for themselves at lonely and barely serving weekends.
Jesus has come as the old saying has it ‘to disturb the complacent’ and it is in this light that he has come to disturb our own church. Holy cross is our name and we should, when we meet a situation of acute challenge not be afraid to embrace the reality as a Cross to bear and a Cross to win.
In the planning for our crypt space here at Holy Cross Church we will seek to remain true to our old remit to care for our local poor at the point of need :
I imagine that our space downstairs will beckon a strong ‘weekend’ ministry and that Holy Cross Church will be embarked upon a truly ‘Sabbath Christianity’ in which Sundays will place a particular part in our missionary vision.
Our Holy Cross vision – that our church be a beacon of light not only in the Christian, religious sense, but in the sense of how our worshipful and praying life gives way to our active concern and active support of those who need Christ’s love, like the man with the withered hand, healed on the Sabbath by a loving Saviour. We are being called to a church turned inside out: that the beauties and consolations of our worshipping life in this place may be mirrored in our active concern for those beyond these walls who are so desperately in need of Christ’s Sabbath love. The forward movement is the one in which, by God’s will, the local church is transformed as it welcomes meets and includes those who would otherwise be locked out from the Sabbath enclosure
Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Trinity 2018
27th May 2018
Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Trinity
Holy Cross Church Cromer Street 2018
The Feast of the Holy Trinity itself forms the latest of great feasts that crown the Church’s year; Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and now Trinity Sunday. Easter focuses on the Resurrection of Christ, Ascension his heavenly glory seated at the right hand of the Father, Pentecost upon the coming of the Holy Spirit and the Trinity upon the godhead itself. Of the four, the Feast of the Trinity, of God’s manifestation as Creator God, as Christ and as Holy Spirit is the hardest to understand because it expresses God as three ‘persons’ but as a single unity. Despite the difficulty, it is more important than ever that we learn to speak about God. To know God as real and to communicate that reality in words as theologians. How then are we to make God real? I want to show you how this has been done by an icon painter, a novelist and a spiritual writer, and then to show three paintings which tell us more about God.
The Holy Trinity has been painted by Andrei Rublev as an icon for a household of love. The icon is based on one of Abraham’s visions in Genesis Chapter 18, in which the elderly Abraham and his wife Sarah entertain three mysterious guests. Rublev’s point was to establish the Trinity as both a concrete reality and as a sublime mystery. At the heart of the mystery is the hospitable God who wishes to invite you to take your place at the heavenly banquet, for the place in front of you is yours. God is depicted as a place to dwell in, or as Henri Nouwen has put it “a household of love”. This is a household where there are no artificial boundaries and where all who honestly seek after the presence of God may find it and be embraced by it. Living in this household is not only a revelation of God’s love but also makes this love apparent and real. This has far-reaching implications for the Church which must both safeguard the integrity of its faith but welcome the strangers in its own midst with the completest hospitality. And this hospitality has to reach deep into its theology and its world-view and into all its own prejudices, known and unknown. The icon for Nouwen’s household of love is also Rembrandt’s painting ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ in which loving forgiveness and reconciliation is God’s response to our own longing to find our true destiny.
We live not one life but many lives. Iris Murdoch’s ‘The Bell’ begins with the words “Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason.” Immediately we are plunged into Dora’s inner life through this novel in a way no other medium allows. Her life is not a simple story with a beginning, a middle and an end, but like the rest of us lived out riddled with contradictions, or with what Murdoch called ‘contingency’. What could be more mysterious than a God who is at one and the same time Creator of Man, Man himself and Holy Spirit? It is in the tradition of the novel to allow us to accept and incorporate both the limitedness of human understanding with the incompleteness of things. As the hymn “And Can It Be?” puts it: ‘Tis mystery all, the immortal dies, who can explore his strange design…?’ It is in life’s radical incompleteness that the God of love comes to meet us. He is the one who, in Jesus Christ offers hope even in and through the gaps of our existence.
Three years’ ago I attended the funeral of a former parishoner who had been living with cancer for some years. I shall call him Michael. He had had many remissions and had fought the disease bravely until finally he died. As his eulogy was read at the funeral service I realised with a start that I had only known him as a sick man, albeit a lovely human being. But here was another man with a rich past, a painter, a diplomat, who had lived in Egypt for twenty years and was fluent in Arabic, and all I seemed to remember were our rather stilted conversations, mostly theological discussions, because he took a keen interest in that. As the service wore on, I nonetheless realised two things; firstly that the life I had encountered in Michael was put a small part of the entirety of his earthly life which spanned times and places I could barely imagine or inhabit. Secondly, I realised that nonetheless all real human encounters are spiritual encounters, and they have a quality that makes the spirit sing for joy. They involve the subtle interplay of lives apparently lived at a distance, but recognised as part of one reality. The funeral became for me a celebration of his life and of mine too. That small part of my life which was spent with him has been transformed for me and is part of my present life, and as I think on these things I know that in the middle of all this is the love of the Trinitarian God.
We can’t begin to fathom the intricacies of the meaning of all this, just as we can’t fathom the intricacies of the Trinity. Masaccio paints the Trinity as older man, younger man and dove but does this in a painting where you are left to wonder about their existence within the realm of time and space and perspective. It is not there to overwhelm you but to place before you the existence of God as both an abiding truth and a sublime mystery. The Holy Trinity does not therefore find us speculative and doubting, but beckons us to enter in and to find God ready to greet us, as we do today; to come and eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus Christ our Saviour and to come ‘just as we are’, within the household of His abiding and all-embracing love.
Sermon for the Feast of Pentecost 2018
20th May 2018
Sermon for the Feast of Pentecost
They were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Acts 2.4.
The Coming of the Holy Spirit marks the Church’s real birthday, though the Church was really begun as the disciples were called at Galilee. Even so, our dramatic first reading from The Acts of the Apostles describes a signal moment among those who had followed Christ. For the moment of Pentecost was singular and devastating. The Holy Spirit had come with power and it had rested upon them. It was the power which declared God to be not only real in the lives of men and women everywhere, but whose presence and Holy Spirit was to lie at the heart of all that might be fulfilled in His Name.
This Pentecost moment had emerged out of their long Eastertide. It had been an Eastertide of waiting and of wondering and of bewilderment. Something might emerge out of all this apparent mess, but what? What is most certain among the loose band of followers was this: The teaching of Christ and the experience of the resurrection had been transformative for their lives. They now knew that what they had been given by Jesus was a living Gospel of unparalleled spiritual power. Pentecost had come to them in the giving of spiritual gifts. And the Giver was the Giver of all things, God himself. And the gift was the gift of himself as seen and known in His Son Jesus Christ and in the giving of the Holy Spirit. Jesus had asked that it be sent and foretold its coming. And so it was. The original spirit of God, which had brooded over the face of the waters before the Creation had now become the life giving spirit mediated in and through the life and death of Christ. And the gift for the disciples was to be both inspirational and practical and future providing.
It is most important to the writer of the Acts of the Apostles that this is a Holy Spirit which is not wil o’ the wisp and elusive. It is a Holy Spirit which takes basic form in the life of the emerging Christian community as a gift from God in Jesus Christ. And the primary fact of this gift is three-fold:
Firstly it is a gift which calls us to think differently about the human family in the breakdown of tribal, national and language barriers. The idea of the proliferation of languages with the one singular understanding burns in our minds as the possibilities that lie inherent in the understanding of different worlds of understanding. We are here called to take on the reality of what lies before us as strange and new and embrace it wholeheartedly, for it is when we meet and greet and accept the new and the hitherto unlearned parts of our experience that we truly grow into God’s likeness.
God’s love must lead us where it wills, for the Holy Spirit and its life and operation must have us acknowledge that as a Church we do not get carried away with our own self-sufficiency. God is ever provident and the existence of the Holy Spirit reminds us that what we do we do in His name, in His Way and in His time.
Little Gidding IV
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire. T S Eliot.
Secondly, the gift of the Holy Spirit is the one which calls the Christian Church to look beyond itself and its own needs and to see the person of Christ in the eyes of the stranger, the visitor, the refugee, the homeless one, the marginalized, the gay person, the drunk, the depressed and the fatalistic. To look also to the perhaps unseen and unheeded suffering and need going on in our own midst. The Holy Spirit is holy and it is a spirit which gives inner nourishment, but its basic life is one which calls us out of ourselves and beyond the level of our normal horizons. God is to be found there : in the other. He is often called ‘The Holy Other’. In this there may come new life, for the Spirit renews us as it draws us out of ourselves, and into the place of illumination and of hope which is the presence of God and the love of God.
Unless the eye catch fire
The God will not be seen.
Unless the ear catch fire
The God will not be heard.
Unless the tongue catch fire
The God will not be named.
Unless the heart catch fire
The God will not be loved.
Unless the mind catch fire
The God will not be known.
From 'Pentecost' by William Blake.
Finally, the Holy Spirit lives among us in the life of God’s Church, which is the power of God and the influence of God. This Church, in what it is and in what it manages to be for so many different kinds of people, is that place where God is known to dwell and a place of peace, the peace of God which passes all understanding and yet one which may be known and shared: that peace which may reach into and beyond the barriers of custom and boundaries set by this or that ingathered community; a tough peace, if you know what I mean… The message of Pentecost is that the Spirit of God has now entered places where doors had formerly been shut and minds closed, and where the windows of our seeing and knowing have grown opaque with wear. In the breaking down of barriers, in the love of the stranger and in the power and influence of God, The Holy Spirit is forever the living flame of God’s love for us, whomever and wherever we may be…It has come to bring all things together in the One Love, the one thing needful.
Sermon for the Feast of the Ascension (Easter 7)
13th May 2018
Sermon for the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord into Heaven
“The glory of God is the living Man; the life of Man is the Vision of God”.
Archbishop Michael Ramsey.
After the six Sundays of Easter, in which we have encountered the risen Lord with the disciples in so many ways, our observance of this Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord takes us in another direction. Actually, it takes us to another dimension – heavenward. And for The Church this heavenly dimension is a quite natural way of regarding the life of God the Creator in relation to us his creatures. This dimension is expressed most fully in John’s Gospel where Jesus’ life is the one which has come from God and goes back to God. And again for the Church, to speak of Christ is to speak of the holiness and the glory of that freedom of movement he has brought about between the heavenly and the earthly places. We have, over past weeks witnessed the trial, suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. In the weeks following Easter we have witnessed the Christ who comes to the disciples to reassure them and point their lives and their faltering faith every forward. He provides hope in the present and the promise of glory for the future. He promises the gift of the Holy Spirit. And now he goes back to the Father as he ascends into heaven. One of the Psalms express this poetically and joyfully – (Psalm 19.1-4):
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun…
In this meeting and mixing of the heavenly and the earthly there is the hope that is held out for us in Christ. Why is a belief in heaven so much a part of Christian Faith? How are we to believe in heaven in a way that is not as has been said cynically “pie in the sky when you die”? To speak of the Ascension of Jesus is to speak of the glory which emerges out of his own self offering, which is one of humility and self-giving, even unto death. It is best expressed in the 1662 Prayer Book’s Eucharistic Rite:
O God our Heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption, who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world, and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of that his precious death, until his coming again…
We are reminded in Ephesians 4.6 that Jesus “ascended on high and led captivity captive”. And we, who are on this earth as captives, are also as Christians those who follow where Jesus Christ has gone before. And we are promised that what emerges out of the pattern of his and our own struggle and in his life is the glory which is the hope of heaven to come. Like him we come from God and go back to God. Christianity is above all else a hopeful and heaven directed faith. Our living out of this life in the pattern and likeness of Christ is a kind of suffering unto self, but again, after the pattern of Christ’s own being, the promise made to us is to the glory which is yet to be revealed to us:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. Romans 8:18.
Archbishop Michael Ramsey was one who constantly proclaimed the Christian glory in terms of the life of Man to its fullest potential. He wishes that these words, from Irenaeus, a Second Century Theologian and Saint be placed on his gravestone:
The glory of God is the living Man; the life of Man is the Vision of God.
Some time ago I was in Salisbury Cathedral. It is perhaps the finest example of a complete Medieval Gothic Cathedral that we have, with its spire rising to over 400’ the tallest spire in England, and the inside the vaulting which carries you mind and heart heavenward. Heavenward not just because the vaults are high and beautiful but because they speak to the heart and the souI. The architecture is spiritual architecture. I attended Evensong at which Psalm 18 was sung “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” and I began to see the cathedral around me in a new light and even a new dimension. It was no longer just a glorious great church building but a piece of living sculpture, full of space and light, and arches and shapes which took the eye in this or that direction. And then, too, the music and the choir themselves declared further this glory of which the psalmist wrote and of the many ways in which the Glory of God may be expressed in the lives of us all. The glory of God lies all around us and the Christian is the one who has open eyes to express this same glory in all we are and in all we do for God’s sake…
And this is where we come down from heaven and into this earth. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ, his coming to birth as both Man and Son of God is one complete action. It is one which gifts the glory of God to each one of us in our own lives. It is the promise of his presence and of the potential in our own existences in the promise of glory gifted to us by the One Lord Jesus Christ who has ascended to that place where God is. This is the place where we are headed, too, and there is glory in that, too.
As we give our lives more fully to God, and as we dedicate ourselves in the service of Christ, let us then declare not only in our lips but with our hearts:
“The glory of God is the living Man; the life of Man is the Vision of God”.