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A Sermon for the Feast of the Ascension

17th May 2012

One of the greatest discoveries in the painting of pictures was not of a painting technique but which lay in the discovery of a type of paint. Before the 1400s paintings were made with egg tempera, a mixture of coloured paint powder bound with egg yolk and mixed with a palette to make a paste. The good thing about the egg yolk was that it dried the paint quickly. The bad thing was that it always dried as matt, and its mixing as a paint produced a non-reflective painted surface. This made it very difficult to paint light and for the surface of the painting to attract light. And so paintings up to this period are painted on thick cuts of wood and appear very flat. The painter has to work very hard to paint light (done with white streaks) and water (usually with wavy lines). This was sometimes compensated for (if you could afford it!) by the adding of gold leaf so that the painting gave off a bright shine, and this was good for icons but could not produce an image which was what we might call ‘life-like’. It was the discovery of oil paint which changed things. Oil glistened and made colour shine, and so an eye could twinkle or a drop of water be seen as a reflective globule. You could even paint a mirror and reproduce its effects as in Jan Van Eyck’s 1434 painting, The Arnolfini Portrait  in the National Gallery

As we come to the Feast of the Ascension of Christ a similar problem faces both the artist and the Church. Traditionally the Ascension of Jesus Christ has, as you will see on the illustration to this morning’s new sheet, has been depicted as the group of disciples gaze up to see through the clouds a pair of feet! It always seems rather comic. There were no more means at the disposal of the artist to convey the Ascension. Its truer and deeper meaning is not about what is seen but about the very nature of God and of what lies deep. The real meaning ot the Ascension allows us to see that as Christ returns to the Father, so humanity and divinity also find their true meaning in and with one another and not apart from one another. As Jesus returns to the Father Heaven is joined to earth. Humankind is tranformed in its slow but increasingly sure understanding of who God is in Jesus Christ.

This mixing and merging is symbolised in a small ceremony embedded in this Eucharist as the priest, preparing the Eucharistic offering, pours a small amount of water into the chalice he has filled with wine. And as he does this he says these words “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”. The water does not dilute. The coming of Christ brings about the meeting point between the divine and human realms, and also the heavenly and the earthly; which have in him mixed and merged; and produced the bright glimmer which we have called GLORY and the influence which is what we have called HOLY. The great prayer of worship sums it all up. It is called the Sanctus:

Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord,
God of power and might,
Heaven and Earth are full of your glory.
Hosanaah in the Highest!
Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord,
Hosannah in the Highest!

This is the glory, that emerges out of Christ’s own humility and obedience to suffering. We are reminded in Ephesians 4.6 that Christ  “ascended on high and led captivity captive”.  And so in this way we may see the Ascension as the celebration of the glory not only of God but also of humanity and the unlikely possibilities that may emerge out of muddling and struggling lives like ours. God has become like us in Jesus Christ so that we may now share in the divine likeness, which for the first time becomes accessible to us in Him.

Archbishop Michael Ramsay was one who constantly proclaimed the Gospel of Christ in terms of its irradiation of God’s glory, which is the life of man in its fullest potential. He wished that these words, from St Irenaus, 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.

“Where there is no vision; the people perish” says the writer of Proverbs in 29.18. The Ascension grants us that vision, maybe crudely expressed as a pair of feet, but in actual fact opening up for us a new vision of what John the Divine called “New Heavens and a New Earth”. And the coming of this vision is very important in our own times. If we are living in an age where we are defined merely as consumers,  sharers of basic information rather than conversationists; where increasingly we see ourselves as subject to forces and influences beyond our control, and where language is abbreviated and human experience subject to so many mechanical transactions, then we need a new vision which embraces us in all our humanitiy and which is possessed of radical compassion.. The opening up of the idea of the Christ who ‘leads captivity captive’, the creation of ‘new heavens and a new earth’ brings us to the place where life is no longer seen as pertaining to the old dull flat, two dimensional existence, the egg-bound one, but bright with light and multi- dimensional. It is a life which reaches beyond itself and finds God as Glory: The glory of God is the living Man; The life of Man is the Vision of God”.  This is the same God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” and who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus ...2 Corinthians 4.6.

A new dimension is opened up for us; one which has united our earthly existence with our Maker and Redeemer, and which lies before us as our ultimate; our truest potential. The Light of Christ will be able to be seen and known for what it truly is.

Love, Love, Love

13th May 2012

As we come to the end of the Easter Season our readings draw us to the final outcome of the Resurrection of Jesus from the Dead. It was for the Church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to proclaim their risen Lord not just as a phenomenon but in an understanding of what constituted ‘human being’. And for the Church this was straightforward. God, the God of the Old Testament, the God of history, the ‘abba’; the Father of Jesus was love. The outworking of human love was the defining characteristic of the Christian Church as it emerged like a butterfly out of its chrysalis. But this was to be a love that was expressive and timeless.

This teaching on love, though, was not just ‘pie in the sky’. It was forged in the life of the Gospel writer John in relation to the early history of the Church from 90-110 AD.  It was at this time that the Christian Church had begun to identify itself quite distinctly from its Jewish inheritance. This identity emerged out of the wisdom on the part of the great Apostles Peter and Paul that Baptism be offered to those known as gentiles - the general population;  the great mass of people ‘out there’,  ‘the great unwashed’. This radical decision was acted upon out of a sense of Christ and of the radical demands of the love of Christ. There was to be no partiality shown. The Christian community was no longer a slave to religious convention, but now a community of love whose members held a relationship in common. Jesus had called them ‘friends’ and this embrace of friendship cut across and undermined the old religions and the claim to many so many little exclusivenesses. It cut across the cultural norms and the weight of rank and privilege set against the Christian claim to an interrelated society with a common and shared destiny. It gained ground and lasted because its vision was realistic and expansive.  It spoke about what was real, and what is real in us. Jesus had come not to proclaim a religiosity for its own sake but to speak for the truth of our human condition at its very heart. John reminds us of Jesus’ words ‘This is my commandment, ‘love one another as I have loved you’. Another John, John Lennon was to say, nineteen hundred and sixty years later,

Love is the answer, and you know that for sure; Love is a flower, you've got to let it grow.
You're just left with yourself all the time, whatever you do anyway. You've got to get down to your own God in your own temple. It's all down to you, mate.

John Lennon is all very well… but he was mistaken. The Church was and does never speak of ‘your own God in your own temple’. Lennon’s idea of love was a love without God. He was really saying ‘love is God’. That’s not what we know to be true. Our three readings this morning tell us differently. They assume before anything else that the sole referent for the showing of human love is the existence of God, who has loved us before time began and who sent his Son to show us that love. Through our Baptism we have been provided with the patterning for that love. John is sure as he waits upon God that God is saying ’You did not choose me, I chose you’. This expression is written into an icon at my old theological college, Westcott House in Cambridge.

Rowan Williams, in his book, "The Dwelling of Light: Praying with Icons of Christ" (Canterbury Press, 2003) bases his chapter on the Westcott icon, writing, "the icon of the Christ Pantocrator in the chapel of Westcott House, Cambridge, was and is for me and many others a profoundly significant image." Of its meaning he writes,

"The point is simple: face to face with Jesus, there and only there, do we find who we are. We have been created to mirror his life, the eternal life of the one turned always toward the overflowing love of the Father; but our human existence constantly turns away. When we look at Jesus, we see in some measure what he sees, and are drawn to where his eyes lead us... we look at him looking at us, and try to understand that as he looks at us he looks at the Father. In other words, when he looks at us, he sees the love that is his own source and life, despite all we have done to obscure it in ourselves. When we look at him looking at us, we see both what we were made to be, bearers of the divine image and likeness, and what we have made of ourselves."

If love is to be anything at all it must speak for our human condition as it is found. This Eastertide stands for the proclamation of that love not just for its own sake but for the life of the world and the fulfilment of human destiny. Anything else is fake. It is in this sense, and only in this sense that St Augustine’s order has been understood:

Love, and do what you will…

Practical Love

6th May 2012

Practical Love: A Sermon preached at Holy Cross Church Cromer Street, London
for Easter 5, 6th May 2012,  by The Rev’d. Dr. James Walters,
Chaplain of the London School of Economics.

There is, on the back of my office door, a quotation that reads:

“I only love God as much as I love the person I love the least”.

Those are the words of Dorothy Day. She’s not that well known this side of the Atlantic but she is something of a folk hero among social activist American Christians. She was originally a Communist but she discovered the faith was baptized at the age of 30 in 1927. She believed that her ideals of social justice were better lived out as a Christian than as a communist and she set up the “House of Hospitality” to work with the poorest residents of New York’s slums.

She was very scathing of American Christianity of her time. She saw a lot of supposed faith, a lot of people who claimed to love God. But those same people could be highly judgmental of those living in poverty around them. This was an America to the “New Deals” of Franklin D Roosevelt - the reforms that brought in the kind of welfare system in the United States that was also coming into being across Europe to protect vulnerable people - the unemployed, the sick, the homeless, the elderly. And indeed, if you’re familiar with the novels of John Steinbeck, you’ll have some idea how much suffering there was. This was a brutal free market America where those who couldn’t afford to eat were just viewed as indolent and inferior. But Dorothy Day believed something else. She believed, “I only love God as much as I love the person I love the least”. She is saying the same thing, of course, as St John in his first letter:

Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

That might sound like something we would obviously want to sign up to. We talk a lot about love in church and there are few people who would take issue with any of the warm words that John expresses in his letter about God being love and abiding in that love. But the reality of all this stuff is much more demanding, maybe even offensive to our sense of fairness and justice. Because Dorothy Day reminds us of two things about Christian love.

First, love is not, in the first instance, a feeling so much as a decision. We must love our brothers and sisters, John tells us. But the Gospel tells us that all people are potentially our brothers and sisters, certainly all the baptised as we see in the new bond created between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. And Jesus goes further to say that we should love our enemies. Now our culture believes that love is a feeling - most pop songs are all about it. But we are never going to feel love for our enemies. It is impossible to feel love for all people in the way John talks about here. So for the Christian, we are able to love because we decide to love. Essentially we decide not to judge because just as God sent not his Son to condemn the world, so it is our refusal to condemn that makes love possible. And goodness me, condemnation is very tempting.

Second, Dorothy Day reminds us that as well as a decision, love is an action. Love needs to be expressed in concrete form. Dorothy Day really got on with that in practical ways running a soup kitchen and housing the homeless. In a big city like ours with so many different needs, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by a sense of inability to make a difference. But there are always things that each one of us can do to make our love for others concrete. Indeed there has to be if we are truly to be Christians and follow this very direct command of Christ. So love is a decision and love is an action.

All of this is becoming more and more pressing in the society in which we live today, because as our welfare state is rolled back and market forces come to dictate the shape of our society, we are in some ways returning to the kind of world in which Dorothy Day lived - a world where people are not compassionate because they are too quick to pass judgment on the cause of somebody else’s need. Archbishop Rowan got into all that trouble last year in his New Statesman article for saying that we are seeing ‘a quiet resurgence of the seductive language of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor’. And when something causes that much of a stir, it’s clearly because it is an uncomfortable truth.

What we know is that this city is becoming more unequal and more fragmented, more governed by the logic of the market in crucial areas like housing. Maybe that is an issue affecting some of you sitting here. And I think that vision of a fragmented, market-driven city is inconsistent with the New Testament which doesn’t set people in competition with one another but sees everybody as connected to everybody else. We see that in this wonderful image of life in Christ - life on the vine. All the branches bear their own fruit and the parable clearly implies a personal responsibility, a judgment of our individual actions. But all are woven together and connected to one another in an organic way. Essentially the vine flourishes as a whole or it withers and dies as a whole. And it will flourish when the whole vine is grounded in Christ who is the God of love.

“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
Those aren’t warm fluffy words for our comfort. Those are challenging, radical words for our time. So let’s be people who stand against condemnation, people for whom love is a decision and an action. And so let’s pray that this city might be a fruitful vine where all are fruitful together and where we all grow in the love of God.

The Reality of the Body

22nd Apr 2012

“They gave him a piece of broiled fish and he took it and ate it in their presence”  Luke 24.40
Luke 24.36b-48

    •    The Body and Embodiment

We can’t avoid the fact that the gospel writers found the resurrection of Jesus quite puzzling. Except, that is, in one point: in different ways, all the gospels labour the point that Jesus was no ghostly apparition. They tell us the tomb was empty; that he ate, broke bread, spoke, allowed Thomas and others to put their fingers in his wounds. He was very much embodied. It’s interesting that they labour this point, because of course they also tell us that his friends walked along in conversation with him for several miles without knowing him, that he appeared in locked rooms, that he suddenly disappeared from their sight – all things which sound much more like the ways we think of disembodied ghosts.

So why this focus on the reality of the body? Why, at this moment of resurrection vision, do we come to the frankly mundane sounding sentence: ‘They gave him a piece of broiled fish’?

One of the real dangers for people of faith is that we fail to recognise the importance of the physical, tangible world of which we are part – that we make our faith ‘other worldly’. This has always been a danger – right back in the early centuries of the church when Gnostics denied that God had made the physical world, believed that it was evil, and taught that we had to be saved out of it. But Christians have always believed that all of this is God’s creation, and that it is (at the very least potentially) good.  We, like him, are of the body and of the spirit; the resurrection tells us that the true life is one which does not oppose the physical, but goes beyond it. With our bodies, and our hearts and minds, we are called to behold and proclaim God’s glory in the very real present, in the very cold light of day.

The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus are not ghostly or figments of their imagination but real encounters with the living God, who had lived and moved and had his being with them as their teacher and master, but who now lived among them as “Lord and God”, and who now was to exist for The Church as the divine presence which remains always…

    •    The Vision and the Visionary

We are still in the season of Easter, and will certainly remain so for some weeks. This is The Church’s intention. It is to allow for a protracted period of time, Eastertide, in which we experience and re-experience the Resurrection and its aftermath so that we may come to realise its meaning for ourselves. The Resurrection was and is never seen as a simple end-point in the life of the Jesus. It exists dynamically in time. The apostles had already shown the emotional freedom and courage to set aside their existing attachments and follow Jesus, they now had to grasp the far more unsettling message that their lives, and the life of the whole world, would now be utterly changed.


The grave clothes of winter
are still here, but the sepulchre
is empty. A messenger
from the tomb tells us
how a stone has been rolled
from the mind, and a tree lightens
the darkness with its blossom.
There are travellers upon the road
who have heard music blown
from a bare bough, and a child
tells us how the accident
of last year, a machine stranded
beside the way for lack
of petrol, is crowned with flowers.

R S Thomas

So it’s right that we are taking our time to reflect deeply on the Resurrection - it is the ground on which the life of the Church is built. The Resurrection brings the Church into new birth as the wellspring of its life. It is not isolated in history but an ever-present fact for the Church and its present and forward momentum. We can’t ‘do’ the resurrection on Easter day and then get on with the rest of life: The Church is called  to stay in the resurrection so as to be able to live and not die:

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what Thou dost love,
And do what Thou wouldst do.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Until my heart is pure,
Until with Thee I will one will,
To do and to endure.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Blend all my soul with Thine,
Until this earthly part of me
Glows with Thy fire divine.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
So shall I never die,
But live with Thee the perfect life
Of Thine eternity.

The Resurrection stands in contrast to life that is fossilised and atomised. It is the perpetual declaration if new life in the immediate present for the insurance of life in the future. It is also RS Thomas’ “…stone being rolled from the mind”.  I was in Leeds last week at a Church Urban fund Conference and heard the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu offer these words from Archbishop Temple on the passing of the acts for the establishment of the welfare state:

“This is a once in a lifetime expression of a Christian ethic embodied in an act of parliament”

William Beveridge spoke of the sound establishment and the solid expression of ‘social insurance’ in the life of the nation. The coming of these things was, in the light of the devastation of war, a small but miraculous thing. A significant leap of faith in the life of the beleaguered people, a Christian ethic embodied in an act of parliament. And all this because in the thick of war there yet existed among influential minds a vision for a dynamic peace. When such things happen they stand alone, as great political landmarks. So much more for the Resurrection vision in the life of the Church which calls Christians to confidence in the present life and a dynamic hope for the outworking of its future. Confident because the witness is sure and founded on firm foundations which, as Paul reminded us ‘have already been laid’. 1 Corinthians 3.11. Sure because of the reality which for the Church is “Christ in us, the hope of glory”. Colossians 1.27

Doubting Thomas

15th Apr 2012

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
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.

Via Negativa    R.S. Thomas (1913–2000)

The Resurrection of Jesus was only slowly realised by the disciples. The Gospel of Mark, which we have been following this year is known to be full of their misunderstandings. The disciples are not learned men. They struggle with their own  intelligences and partial understandings. 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 may be asserted only in relationship to its being something which unfolds as it is revealed to us. It is never the finished article or a final statement. It grows and develops and may in the right circumstances grow deeper and more mature. More vision and trust may be granted. It takes a while for us  to come to the fuller realisation and understanding of all the things which have taken place. 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. The brief and pithy dialogue between Jesus and Thomas tells us that Jesus is a truth that can only be apprehended by faith. After all, the new relationship which the Resurrection has founded is the one in which Jesus of Nazareth, the 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!” Remember that it was Mary Magdalene and not one of the twelve disciples who witnessed the Resurrection. Remember too that Thomas was not before this incident a witness to the Resurrection. John tells us that he believed only on outward evidence, the witness of his own eyes; but my understanding is that this was witness to something  he had known all along. He was like us only too human…

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.”  Claiming and reclaiming our chosenness is the great spiritual battle of our lives, for in a competitive, power-hungry and manipulative world, it is all too easy to forget that God has always known us, and God has chosen us – even when we slide into self-doubt and self-rejection. Knowing that we have been and are known by God, and that we have been chosen, is the first thing we need to claim as we behold what we are and become what we receive in Him.

Henri Nouwen.




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