Sermon for Easter 2 2019
28th Apr 2019
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.
Sermon for the Easter Vigil 2019
20th Apr 2019
Sermon for Easter
‘What a difference a day makes’ we might say as we come to this glorious Easter time. Within the space of three days, everything for the Christian Church has changed. And in the passing of this brief period of time - of Holy Week and now of Easter, the Church has endured the pain of death in the deep solemnity of Passiontide and now all is suddenly transformed. The Church’s proclamation proceeds out of the death of Christ, and through his Glorious Resurrection we proclaim new life to the world. Our joyful cry is “Alleluya!” And all this has been encapsulated into one single week; the saving events into three days, and now the day of Resurrection comes tonight to startle and amaze us and carry us yet forward.
The days of Lent and Passiontide cannot be experienced separately but together as one stream, leading inexorably toward their resurrection fulfilment. The life that Easter makes possible, is now brought to us as a delicate flame, The Light of the Risen Christ is proclaimed as “Christ our Light”, appearing first as light in darkness and then acknowledged and honored in the glorious Easter song ‘The Exsultet’ as our everlasting life..
Then there is the Vigil of Old Testament Readings for the recapitulation of our Christian Faith; the tracing of our spiritual origins. It begins with The Creation Narrative in Genesis, and then proceeds to the Exodus and Abraham and then the promise of the coming of the One who will promise us the God not our of religious duty alone, but his being from the communication of one heart speaking to another. This Easter Liturgy will be a profound celebration of the sacramental life that God has granted us through the blessing of the baptismal waters and of the renewal of our baptismal vows. We are to discover Easter in the outpouring of transformative grace. We come to celebrate the Eucharist anew, warmed and inspired by the presence of the great Easter candle, which is with us as ‘Christ our Light’.
I was in Waitrose this afternoon and saw the sad sight of the Easter eggs that had become too difficult to be sell. They sat on the shelves, forlorn, with their expensive price tickets waiting to suffer the ignominy of being reduced by half, or even more when the supermarket’s ‘Easter effect’, marketed since the end of February, had become redundant. We live in a supermarket economy in which sell-by dates mix with sales trends and Waitrose’s own seamless thread which runs both vaguely with and absurdly counter to the church calendar – how else can we explain the fact of hot cross buns sold in Marks and Spencer’s at Christmastime? In the popular mind’s eye, very little would be known about Maundy Thursday or Good Friday except as adjuncts to Easter. Easter-time stretches out for weeks. Lent is passed by, forgotten; after all how do you market Lent?
For Christians this is very strange. For Easter is the most significant time of the Christian Year, one in which Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday have been each and alone significant. Each belong to one another, and they all belong to that part of The Church’s life which places a premium on the hallowing of time with an intense experience of the saving events of the Faith. Our emotions have been dragged from pillar to post. The Church allows us to inhabit this time of intense contemplation with the profound awareness of its deeper meaning. Such a passing of time is not made without its being offered to God in and through his Son. It is experienced as kairos, God’s time. And so we don’t speak of the ‘Easter Effect’ or ‘The Easter Experience’ without we ‘gone through it’, write it on our hearts and make it come alive in our own witness to the saving events of the Christian faith. We become those same witnesses to the resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ who rushed to the tomb. We become the ones who must now proclaim and share this message of life and hope in the discovery that he has risen and that life as we know it is now changed and transformed for good.
The contrary movement is the ’emptying out’ of the true Easter, and of the return to our unsold but expensive Easter eggs! We see a society which no longer memorizes a calendar which allows for Easter as the time of Resurrection. ‘On the third day he rose again from the dead’ we say in the Creed. We must proclaim this truth as in the Exsultet, the song of praise to the Easter candle, that Christian Faith may exist as a flame bravely burning, if necessary, counter culturally.
May this flame be found still burning
by the Morning Star:
the one Morning Star who never sets,
Christ your Son,
who, coming back from death's domain,
has shed his peaceful light on humanity,
and lives and reigns for ever and ever.
We value the Christian manner of time-keeping as it draws us more surely into Holy Easter, proceeding out of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not by accident, but in and through God’s own kairos, his time.
The joyful message of Easter is that now God’s time and our time have become everlastingly one and the same. Pray that two hearts may beat as one!
Good Friday 2019
19th Apr 2019
Good Friday 2019
“My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” Matthew 27.45-46 and Psalm 22.1
The Gospel writer Matthew has Jesus cry out in utter desolation. This cry issues out of the mouth of the dying Christ as his last words. So different from the more controlled words of Luke’s ‘Into thy hands I commend my Spirit’; and John’s direct ‘It is finished’. Matthew’s cry of dereliction is the cry concentrated into the one final, terrible utterance. This cry is the cry of all who have ever cried. When we see or hear someone crying from a place deep within we cannot fail to be moved. We recognise that sense of human frailty which is the lot of us all. We all cope with a sense of life as light and shadow, and of our own unknowing and of Shakespeare’s “… thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to…” Life is lived as a kind of Cross because in order to see life in its true light we have to admit the shadow, too. Our inward cry of longing is the cry that life can be both wonderful and terrible. We come to know the futility of living life as though it were a personal possession. It can truly be lived only in communion with the one who is its giver, God alone. Only then can we live lives which are not in vain, but it must mean that, in God, we will tend to live provisionally.
Jesus’ cry of dereliction is disturbing. At the moment of encroaching death He feels utterly forsaken and alone. And the question he puts before God is “Why have you left me?” “Why aren’t you there anymore?” The cry of the suffering one. The cry of the one who feels his suffering has not been heeded and for which there is no explanation. Good Friday sees the worldwide Church stand still today as it takes in the full meaning of Christ’s exposure to these elements. The Cross lands upon this world’s understanding with a loud thud. Our churches are stripped down, statues and images remain covered, and everything is laid bare. We observe not merely the dramatization of an event that happened 2,000 years ago, but are confronted in the present with a Cross which challenges us to the roots of our being.
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Hebrews 4.12
The Cross lays bare in us what was once laid bare in Christ. And this ‘laying bare’ hinges on the fact of our lives as God sees them. In his Son Jesus Christ, we are given to reflect upon life as a dying of deaths, and the one great dying that Christian Faith asks of us is the dying to self, and especially to the self which would make God in our own image. The dereliction happens not to be God’s but ours, too. Too often we seek and we do not find God because we have made him in our image. We witness the many substitutes which modern culture puts in place, including the simple fact that of the 50 different designs on the Easter Cards sold at Waitrose, none feature either the Cross or the tomb, instead all is bathed in daffodils and coloured in pale yellows, blues and greens, featuring chicks and bunnies and speckled eggs. It would seem that the Cross and the Tomb are no longer good sellers. In a similar vein, ‘Game of Thrones’ introduces the onlooker to an escapist mix of the heroic, the romantic, the violent, the fantastic and the cruel and this takes us away from the Cross as it proclaims the very this worldly, questioning and yet truth telling mystery which is God.
In former times, it was common to speak of a person as ‘God-fearing’. This did not speak of an individual cowering under the influence of a tyrant, but one who acknowledged the God who ‘seeks us out and knows us’ the God whose love divines the truth about us and our existence. He is to be obeyed not because this has been forced out of us but because this obedience forms the full measure of what must remain truthful for our lives. God is our proper balance and compass. Christian Faith has not given us a holiday from the path we must tread in life, with all it contains for good or ill. Rather it has heightened the sense in which a belief in God exists as a revelation and an open wound. It is only The Cross (capital ‘T’, capital ‘C’) which heals, because in it lies the truth about us and our existence. Only in communion with God can the true purposes of our life be revealed to us. For in acknowledgement of the living God comes also the acknowledgement of the need to cry to the one who will hear us. The cry comes from the heart. It cries out for the God, the Holy One, who is our Way, our Truth and Our Life. As the baby cries as it emerges from the womb so too we are never far from that crying out at the being born into a life like ours, even if the cry is stifled and subconscious. Jesus’ cry of dereliction takes up all our own cries and in Him they are nailed to the Cross, the place of what one Archbishop has called ‘Crucifixion Christianity’.
The Spanish Mystic, John of the Cross reminds us that
“…we too must have our Cross as our beloved had his Cross until he died the death of love…”
The Cross of Christ is borne in so many ways by so many people. And they emit their own cry of dereliction. One woman used to regularly telephone me. She was a depressive. She would phone to ask me to continue to pray for her. The phone call always took the same form : it could even be scripted: “Would you pray for my depression to go away?” “Would you please pray for my survival?” The request was always gentle and courteous and the same call made in regular intervals of ten days or so. It ended like this once “Thank you for your prayers and may I wish you a very Happy Easter? Goodbye” and then the ‘phone clicks and she was gone again. In this terse exchange there emerged a deep and sharing trust between us, for when the calls ended came a shared silence, a deep intake of breath and time to take in the depth of what she was saying. Hers are one of the many human crosses which cannot be avoided or discarded but which must be held in the love of God as a prayer of the heart.
The Cross is being borne by this woman and shown forth by a painter, Terry Duffy, whose contemporary work, ‘Victim, No Resurrection?’ once hung above the altar at St Martins-in the Fields. It is a thoroughly challenging and disturbing work which is both a crucifix and also a window onto a violent world in which the real crucifix still stands. It is a work which depicts victims of suffering whose cross is perpetual and whose hurts have no seeming redress. All these reflect the lives of those who, like the Christ before them, are nailed to crosses and whose cries of dereliction go apparently unheeded… ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Duffy’s Cross has travelled from New York and was exhibited at Auschwitz.
Jesus’ cry is not the cry of desperation. It is a cry that must be heard as part of a dialogue with the Father. It is a cry that finalises the death-throws that they may be transformed into Resurrection life. It does this because it keeps in tension the willing self-offering unto death with the operation of the divine will. For the Gospel writer Matthew there is no immediate answer as to why God has temporarily forsaken his Son. But not all questions, least of all this one, have immediate answers. The God of the Cross as for the God of Job gives no immediate answer. He is silent. But he has not forsaken his Son. As Jesus utters his final cry of dereliction the salvation he wins for us is already being made. His cry is part of a divine exchange which makes possible what one Pope called a “radical evolutionary leap” in which our existence is placed on a new and Christ centred trajectory. It is a cry as the ‘birth pangs of a new age’. Mark 13.8. and echoed in the words of the ‘Salve Regina’, our prayer to the Virgin Mary:
Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of mercy,
The crucified Christ, honored and adored in this Good Friday Liturgy, stands for the cry of the one who longs for reconciliation with God. It is centered upon something that happened, the nailing of Jesus Christ to the Cross for his death. For many this would achieve forever the obliteration from the map of human memory the one who had already been acclaimed as The Son of God, the promised Messiah. But it was not to be, the judgement, the punishing death and the final breath would not bring an end to him. Even his own last words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” are taken up into the heart of the Father. Nothing in the evolution of God’s grace, no moment, no prayer, no good deed is ever wasted least of all this one. It is all to be gathered up. The cry of dereliction is to be heard by the Father after all. For this is only the first day. On the third day all will be changed forever.
Sermon for Passion Sunday
7th Apr 2019
Sermon for Passion Sunday 2019 (Year C)
We mark the season of Lent in this church each Friday at 6 pm as we make a walk around the fourteen Passion ‘stations’, each one a stage on Christ’s ‘’via dolorosa’ or sorrowful way. These stations, or stopping off points, allow the Passion narrative to be prolonged and we see and experience Jesus’ suffering in the deliberate slowing down of our responses, as we start and stop and witness each of its stages. Each station presents us with a time for prayer and meditation. You will notice this morning that though all our pictures, statues and icons are covered, the stations of the cross are not. In this way they stand out in a church enshrouded in purple cloth, readying itself for the saving events of Christ’s death and resurrection.
The Church on earth holds its breath as it prepares for these solemn and soul searching events. Our Gospel this morning reminds us that Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus also foresaw the death of Jesus. She anoints Jesus with costly oil and wipes his feet with her hair. It is an act of extraordinary daring. Mary has grasped that Jesus’ sacrificial death is an essential part of his work, and this emerging truth takes her and us beyond the realm of what is merely ordinary or obvious. Like her namesake, Mary Magdalene, she is gifted with insight and foresight. The witness of the two Marys is to play a crucial part in the saving events of Christ’s life, death and resurrection and to challenge traditional and predictable patterns of thought.
“Mary’s act of adoration, her anointing, is an excessive, extravagant gesture, an act of love similar to the amount of water turned into wine at Cana. God’s love for us is not to be limited by rational calculation. The miracle at Cana prefigures the foolishness and scandal of Christ’s self-offering on the cross. It is therefore fitting that Mary’s offering, her anointing, is ‘beautiful, foolish and scandalous”.
Jean Vanier ‘Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through John’.
This idea of the ‘scandal’ of the Cross had been taken up by Paul when he said that “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss through Jesus Christ”. Whether these gains were to do with my birth right, status, my bank balance, my looks, my self-conscious self-containment – Jesus’ own sacrifice has rendered these so-called gains as real, inevitable losses. Hence Paul speaks ironically about his ‘boasting’ and Mary crosses the boundaries of good taste and expense in delivering, from the immediacy of her own desire, an act of expensive anointing which brings the Church, two thousand years later, in close touch with the Passion yet to be revealed.
Only a week ago now I received an Email from Adi Widjaja, an up and coming artist who was looking for a home for his painting, a depiction of the Crucifixion. It is a painting which I have come to know over the past week as it has found its way to our St Peter Chapel. It is simply entitled “I died for You”. It is a powerful image which, like Mary’s anointing both draws us to itself and points away from itself and directly toward us. It depicts at once a crucifixion which is both violent and terrible and yet somehow beautiful in the love of the Son whose offering is fragrant because turned against himself and the world’s self.
In a similar way, Mary the sister of Lazarus might have said “I anointed your Saviour for his impending death even when he was alive, and I did it without thinking”. Life feels good when something brilliant and spontaneous breaks through the normal pattern of things. It rightly upturns our predictable sense of things and speaks to the soul. And so the arrival in our church of this painting, which has been given, as Mary’s anointing was given, at a very particular moment in time. Given for Passion Sunday, when we remember Christ’s going unto death. The painting is a message for us, delivered suddenly and unexpectedly by its creator in that same spirit which gave Mary that same imaginative impetus which enlarges and enriches our sense of what God makes possible in and through his servants.
These messages summon us to be a church which has not become atomised and routinized in the life of faith, but one emboldened after the example of Christ and Mary the Anointer to strike out imaginatively, creatively and daringly on behalf of the community we serve. In this way Holy cross will become a church truly turned ‘inside out’ in the spirit of those who daringly reached out to acknowledge their Saviour Christ as he stood in their midst.
For now we say, in the words of the apostle Thomas as Jesus journeys toward Jerusalem – “Let us go with Him, that we might die with Him”. John 11.16