Sermon for he Fifth Sunday of Easter
24th Apr 2016
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter Year C
“Now the Son of Man has been glorified”. John 13.31.
In the Sundays following Easter our first reading is taken not from the Old Testament, as is customary, but from the Acts of the Apostles. This underlines that the Resurrection of Jesus is the means by which the Christian Church comes to birth and draws new life. It allows for a Christian practice based on mutual love. This counters a religion of law and writ which could easily be blighted by petty infractions. God speaks to Peter to establish a new order. In the re-telling of a vivid dream he is able to see that the old religious practices with their animal sacrifices and rigid customs undermine the sense in which God has declared his Creation to be ‘clean’ and good in itself. The old religion had prevented the believer from seeing God’s world and his humanity as one. Now, in Jesus Christ, the Word of God is expressed as inclusive both of Jews, and the whole gentile world. It does not breed sectarianism.
What God has made clean, his creation, we are not to lessen or undermine in any way, nor are we to be cynical about its being or its destiny. The early Christian (really Judaeo-Christian) community is that it begins to question and re-examine itself in the light of its Jewish past and in the light of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The world stage is set for Saul, later Paul, to bring Jews and Gentiles together in the one Christian fold. He is to verbalise what for Peter had been apparent in the dream as a message for the world's salvation: the ultimate Good News story.
“From now on… There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise”. Galatians 3.26-28
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey was to speak of the Church of God on earth as “A divine society, with Christ as the glory in the midst of it and the Holy Spirit as work within it”. In this new environment, an understanding of God does not proceed merely out of our minds. As Tolstoy once said, ‘It is not the mind which helps us to understand God – it is life’. And this transformed society is one of radical inclusiveness, where all who have come to God, of whatever kind, are accepted and incorporated.
The message of all our three readings this morning is one of new life. It is John’s revelation of ‘new heavens and a new earth’, John the Gospeller speaks of the glorified Christ, and it is this glory which is the proof for the existence of the new order:
“The life of man is the vision of God. The glory of God is the living man”.
St Irenaeus, inscribed on Archbishop Ramsey’s gravestone.
This idea of glory is difficult if it is not earthed in the lives of men and women. Michael Ramsey knew this. God’s glory is to be revealed in his Church in lives which have been transformed by the grace of Jesus Christ. And how I wonder is this glory to be manifest here at Holy Cross Church? At this Easter time of renewal and reinvigoration we will vote in a new parish council and re-elect churchwardens. At a very flat level you might call this ‘more of the same’, aware of a church which needs to be organised and maintained. But something else is here, too. That something else is the Church which is, like the infant Church of Peter’s dream, continually undergoing change and development, not for its own sake, but in the light of the ancient faith and witness to the Resurrection joy we have in the rpesent. If we experience that joy which is Christ risen from the dead, how then do we become a church which is bold and imaginative in establishing new understandings, new partnerships and new ways of becoming an effective Christian presence in King’s Cross? To work for a church which is a living one?
Two stories that happened to me in the past year, relate to two of our local food outlets! The first the new(ish) French boulangerie 'Aux Pains de Papi' on the Grays Inn Road.It started life in Provence. The entirely French staff there always offer me a free croissant and call me ‘mon père’ and they seem to have a natural affinity for the priest and the church. One day they asked me whether I could help donate all their excellent unsold bread to a good cause. I walked around to The Women at the Well, a local charity run by the RC Sisters of Mercy for vulnerable young women and street girls, who, thanks to the French bakers, are now being offered what the newspaper reviewers call ‘The best croissants this side of Paris’ The second food outlet is our own ‘Casa Tua’ across the road in Cromer Street. The partners managing this splendid new Italian Café are from Puglia in Southern Italy. We met on several occasions before the opening, and I manage to suggest coming over on their opening night to bless the place with Holy Water, which they joyfully accepted. It felt so good to be there with the Church’s blessing of the café and the joy it brought to everyone, especially the liebral splashing of Holy Water all over the place. New lfe.. In such a way does the Church express itself as alive to the present moment and fully engaged with the world around it. “The life of man is the vision of God. The glory of God is the living man.”
The message of Christ resurrected and glorified, is in every respect a complete and sufficient one. The charge written into today’s account in the Acts of the Apostles is the one which does not limit the scope of the Christian witness. It is radically inclusive and expressive. Here is the call to bring about that ‘divine society’ which brings us all together, and which bids us summon the vision and the courage to achieve these things in ordinary lives and ordinary ways, but which is in fact and in deed prove extraordinary and transformative:
May God achieve in us those things which transform his Church and may we in turn respond to him with open, joyful and generous hearts and so make real that glory which was his from the beginning. Amen.
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter
17th Apr 2016
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter Year C
I give them eternal life and they will never perish. John 10. 28
The Sundays following Easter tell us about Christ’s Resurrection through the hearts, minds and the lives of its first witnesses. Firstly Mary Magdalene and then the disciples, doubting Thomas, and then Peter and Saul, later Paul. Having established their place as chosen and reliable witnesses, the Gospel takes us into new ground. This is the establishment of the resurrection witness as manifested in the life of the early Judaeo-Christian community. Peter is now no longer a quivering figure of the past but manifestly a towering figure, the rock upon which the Church is built. And St Peter, who represents the human power and purposefulness of the Church is himself possessed of Christ-like spiritual gifts, even to the raising of a woman, Tabitha, or Dorcas, from the dead. Masaccio paints a picture of a Peter whose power and presence shouts itself out as he walks down an ordinary street, with his followers behind him. The painter has a local beggar man, crying out for help and being healed as he kisses Peter’s shadow, a reference to Acts 5.15, where beggars are laid before Peter as they found healing in that very same shadow. The painter represents Peter as the leader of a community of unparalleled spiritual power and influence.
The Gospel writer John provides us with three markers for John’s understanding of the Resurrection of Jesus and what issues out of it; its essential legacy. Firstly, in the person of Peter, a Church is being established which possesses extraordinary self-confidence and courage. Secondly, this is a Church possessed of great healing gifts, and thirdly, this is a Church which is beginning to draw the faithful from across national and cultural and linguistic divides. But above all these gifts and attributions there lies the primacy of human compassion. This is the true marker for the presence of God and the outpouring of his life in to those who bear witness to his Son. This is the very stuff of the Kingdom of God, established from the basis of human compassion and not from that of might or right. Jesus says of those who belong to this kingdom “I give them eternal life and they will never perish. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no-one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one”. John 10.28-30.
As I was thinking about these two ‘C’ words, confidence and compassion so my mind immediately sprang to the London Diocese’s statement for mission up to the year 2020. It’s called simply ‘Capital Vision’ and sees our churches growing in confidence, compassion and the third ‘c’, creativity, over the next few years. It is hoped that 10,000 new ambassadors for Christ will be emerge and 100 new Christian communities established by 2020. It urges churches like ours to consider our own vision for the future under these three ‘C’s. I am going to offer us something of where I think this places us at Holy Cross:
Firstly, confidence. As we become more ready to express something of our desire to grow and develop our mission so we become more confident. We will offer more opportunities at Holy Cross for us to give witness to what God has done in our own lives and to share something of our Christian journey, not as ‘the finished article’ but as ‘work in progress’, and particularly the sense in which we may have grown in Christ as we have encountered disappointment, failure and sadness as well as when we have felt God’s blessing and bounty. St Peter, the rock on which the church is built is surely the great example of the one who failed but who nonetheless persevered and won through in the example and the confidence which the Saviour had given him.
Secondly, compassion. Written in and through the resurrection narratives is the ‘larger picture’, the one which has established human love and compassion as beyond all else the defining mark of what it is to be a Christian at all. Down below in this church lies a crypt which traditionally would have been a place to store dead bodies. Instead the work of the Holy Cross Centre Trust serves four hundred meals a week to those who find themselves on the margins of our society. Here, upstairs, we show our compassion and love by the way in which we welcome the stranger, building up that sense of oneness and of strength we are given in the Eucharist as God meets us all at our greatest point of need, and then, that the stranger, the visitor, the traveller will leave refreshed renewed in spirit and restored. Prayers are promised those who are sick and in need, the housebound and those in pain are visited, blessed and anointed. Ours is a Christian community which continually looks out for one another and acknowledges that the entire community of Christian faithful is a larger one than we could imagine. Life calls for a Church with a big heart and broad sympathies, but which is also patient, prayerful and joyful. It is capable of a radical inclusivity because rooted and grounded in the faith of Christ and made one in his Holy Spirit in the life of prayer and brought together in the Holy Eucharist.
When Jesus says ‘I and the Father are One’ he is not merely claiming status. Rather, Jesus tells us that in Him, the fuller creative purposes of the Creator God are being made manifest. In this respect the resurrection was experienced by the early Christian in its power to refresh and renew, perhaps daringly, the forms and functions and customs that had hitherto held sway. And so it was that the Church was to be opened to the gentile community, ‘them out there’, the ones who had not hitherto belonged to the faith community. Likewise, old customs of purification and diet were deemed useless in the face of the one and final sacrifice made by Christ. A church like Holy Cross, operates within a traditional frame of reference but not at the expense of responding openly and creatively to the challenges that face us. We will find ways not only of extending our existing ministry to our many visitors but also make permanent membership and commitment to our work more accessible and viable.
Confidence, compassion, creativity: three markers for a Church living, as did Peter, Paul, Thomas and Dorcas in the life and the life-giving energy of the resurrection. We pray that, living in the light of Christ and his loving compassion, we may become most truly that Easter community which is His prayer and promise to us when he said “I give them eternal life and they will never perish”.
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter
10th Apr 2016
The Third Sunday of Easter 2016
“After this he said to him, 'Follow Me' John 21.19
Following the news of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s newly discovered paternity, many have commented on how this has shown him in a new light. He has given testimony to the difficult and messy circumstances of his life in a way many find open, honest and courageous. Such testimony speaks of real life as it is being lived by so many and it is to his credit that Justin has told it, as we say, ‘like it is’:
I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes. Even more importantly my role as Archbishop makes me constantly aware of the real and genuine pain and suffering of many around the world, which should be the main focus of our prayers.
Although there are elements of sadness, and even tragedy in my father's (Gavin Welby’s) case, this is a story of redemption and hope from a place of tumultuous difficulty and near despair in several lives. It is a testimony to the grace and power of Christ to liberate and redeem us, grace and power which is offered to every human being.
It is appropriate this morning, in the light of the Archbishop’s testimony, that we discover, unless we had forgotten, that the life of God’s Church rests on the lives and testimonies of two men who had proved at certain points in their lives, fragile, lost, dangerous and unreliable. I speak of Saint Peter and St Paul. St Peter, who in this morning’s Gospel famously affirms his love for Jesus three times (“you know that I love you”) had of course denied Jesus three times at Jesus greatest point of need. St Paul was a well know scourge of Christians in his early life as Saul, a kind of henchman under whose rough and ready authority Christians were put to death. At best, Peter and Paul might have been considered unreliable witnesses with the wrong pedigree. At worst, they might have been considered injurious to the life of the early Christian Church and the greatest threat to its future existence as ‘trouble from within’. But the opposite proved to be the case. Both were not only secured within the life of the Christian community, but were to become, bar none, its practical and spiritual leaders.
This comes about not out of some lucky oversight, but because the life of the Church is marked out as Resurrection life. This is the life which sees the relationship between suffering and struggle with the possibilities for new life and of transformation in the likeness of the Christ who has gone before us. The community of faith, in the likeness of Christ proved to be kind and compassionate, just like Ananias. This involves believing and trusting and honouring the lives of all just as they are found. And so it is that, following the resurrection breakfast with Jesus, Peter is given a new mandate for his life. Jesus accepts Peter’s love and provides for his future. In similar vein. Saul, now Paul, following his dramatic conversion on the Damascus road, is given food for his sustenance and for strength to live the new life. In both cases the food they eat serves to remind us of the sacrament of the Eucharist, as the feeding for the new, transformed life which the Christian Faith makes possible. If those who had believed in Peter and Paul had not been able to show sufficient compassion and understanding, and rejected them, the Church might have become just a pious sect and might have suffered the death of small mindedness in ignominy and irrelevance. As it was, the two pillars of the Church, Peter and Paul were to become for all time the exemplars of lives which had been turned upside down but which had, in the process been ‘saved’ through faith in the One who saves, Jesus Christ. They were to shape the life of the Church as none other. But as men who were saintly because all too human.
The Archbishop finished his testimony as he looked back on his enthronement service three years ago at Canterbury Cathedral and remembered the formal dialogue with a member of the Cathedral community before he was allowed admittance who addressed him firstly as though a stranger:
“We greet you in the name of Christ. Who are you, and why do you request entry?” To which I responded: “I am Justin, a servant of Jesus Christ, and I come as one seeking the grace of God to travel with you in His service together.” I think both saints Peter and Paul found themselves at this very place of entry, with a tentative and yet purposeful foothold on their entrance into the Christian community. Did they know, any more of less than Justin Welby, precisely who they were, as though qualified for this apostolate? Or did they know that, come what may, the stuff of their lives and the very difficult circumstances that had preceded the moment of entry was the essential offering. The offering of courage and commitment emerging from the receipt of grace. They had arrived at this place because God had willed it to be so. The community of the faithful, though manifesting imperfection, nonetheless trusted that the Resurrection life proceeded not out of calculation, ambition and human skill, but from the movement of the human heart, the place and arbiter of love:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (For) love never ends.
(1 Corinthians 13)
The question ‘Who are you’ is one which, in the light of Christian Faith is responded to not on the psychiatrist’s couch, or in a way in which we can give ‘accurate’ account. Above all, it is for the Christian not of how we see ourselves but of how God in Christ sees us. Christianity is distinctive because it states quite surely that God is the One who wishes to establish once and for all his love and his trust and faith in you and in your life for now and for all time. In Saints Peter and Paul, God has made certain that life; messy, devastating, tragic, violent, denying, destructive can nonetheless be offered to God as a free gift. The possibility for its transformation can in the light of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, promise more than might ever be thought possible: St Paul, a former murderer, St Peter, a traitor and The Archbishop of Canterbury, an illegitimate…. What ever next? But we may know that in this way the ever present love and compassion which issues out of the life, death and resurrection of Christ is being seen and known in the here and now. It is breaking through to establish and sound the Kingdom of God on earth. Where he has gone, let us, too, follow...
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter
3rd Apr 2016
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter
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. And so 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 itself situated 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. 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 we miss the reflection.
Via Negativa R.S. Thomas (1913–2000)
The Resurrection of Jesus was only fully realised by the disciples gradually. The they are not learned men. They struggle with their own partial understanding. But despite this, the Gospel writer is able to make the larger point about the nature of human perception itself. Faith in Christ may be established only in relationship its being unfolded as it is revealed itself to us. It is never comes to us as final. It grows and develops and as we live and move and have our being. The hope in the life of faith is that further vision and a sense of deeper trust may be granted.
The fact of the resurrection is not just a romantic adjunct to the life and death of Jesus. It is a realisation of the identity of Jesus in all its fullness. The brief and pithy dialogue between Jesus and Thomas tells us that Jesus’ identity as ‘Lord and God’ is recognised only in the light of his Resurrection from the Dead. He has now 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 understood this first as she was witness to a resurrection which immediately superseded the sight and experience of the empty tomb. Remember too that Thomas had not been any kind of immediate witness to the Resurrection. John tells us that he came to believe only on outward evidence, the witness of his own eye. He like us, was like us only too human, and he could not at first take that leap of faith, but Jesus, his Lord and God then took the initiative and showed him the resurrection glory through his the sign of his wounds, the marks of his suffering which are also shown for us in the five grains which have been speared into our Easter Candle.
Christian faith does not rest on the acceptance or doubt in a theory. It is about reality. Our 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 leap of faith. The risk as we say to ourselves, ‘Let us go with him, that we might die (and rise) with him”. Let us go with him. There is nothing to fear. God has already taken the initiative which is his love for us. We are no longer to doubt but to 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.