Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity
25th Aug 2019
Sermon for The Tenth Sunday of Trinity Year C
“What you have come to is Mount Zion and the city of the living God” Hebrews 12. 22.
The wonder of modern travel is that we can experience the great cities of the world as never before. They have all become so accessible. It now becomes possible to clamber aboard a train from King’s Cross Station, a few hundred metres away from here, and find ourselves in the centre of Paris in the space of a little more than two hours! The visiting of other countries at shorter and longer distances invites an experience of ‘a change of air’ and the experience of a different dialect or a different language, history, architecture and mood. Such changes ‘take us out of ourselves’ and reinvigorate us.
This morning’s second reading is taken from the Letter to the Hebrews, where we arrive at a new and revitalizing city destination. The writer sets out the provision for the transformation of the Christian community as it was emerging out of its Jewish inheritance. Now, suddenly, in Jesus Christ was envisaged as a divine society. Mount Zion is not just located as a former place name or destination, but now becomes what the writer calls ‘the heavenly Jerusalem’, promising a radical social inclusion never before seen. These are the characteristics of a divine society. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, twenty centuries later 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 city, the city of the living God we are reminded that an understanding of God’s ways does not proceed merely out of our minds or wills. As Tolstoy once said, ‘It is not the mind which helps us to understand God – it is life itself’.
It is a mark of the genius of the Church of England that it is divided up into parishes. Each one of these parishes has a church. Each church represents a worshipping community and a whole slice of life. For each parish, as for each church there is a distinctive character. Someone has remarked that in there is ‘a church for everybody’. It is some time ago now that men and women might church crawl and find churches they had never before visited always open, even if empty. Entering upon the apparent emptiness of a church there is so often the energy in the air which is the atmosphere of prayer. Then there are the many signs of human activity with notices of social events and prayers put up for churches in other parts of the world. Churches have become in recent history places of social ingathering and not just religious places. They aim now to be inclusive of the communities they serve, whether they consist of regular churchgoers or not. In this way contemporary churches fulfil Christ’s own mandate, where the Sabbath stands for healing and the idea of ‘the city of the living God’ one which is intended to be a place and an experience of joyful interaction and communion.
In our own church we find ourselves this late August preparing to welcome new tenants to our crypt, a drama school which auditions and supports budding young actors, many of them from poorer backgrounds. We are also planning and preparing for the installation of the Moon, a digital facsimile of the Moon which will cover most of the chancel area and attract may people from within our own church orbit and beyond it. The experience will be truly interactive and awesome. Churches like ours need no longer feel restrained by the tradition of Sunday worship alone. The model for growing churches will place the onus on us to allow our plant to be ‘turned inside out’ in the service of the wider community. While we do this, we remain a worshipping, praying community whose heart lies with and in God in Jesus Christ. Christ’s is the dynamic we embrace, at all times, and in all ways.
We at Holy Cross are fortunate to be a church in the heart of one of the most happening places in London. The quality of our life as a Christian Church is enriched in interaction with others. Each fulfils his or her own so-creative potential in the one interaction. It in this vein that Jesus heals the crippled woman on the Sabbath. We are to know in this way ‘where he is coming from’. His Kingdom is one which is expressed in freedom. “What you have come to” responds the writer to the Hebrews “…is Mount Zion, and the city of the living God”.
There are some American expressions which are not easily translated into (proper!) English language but which nonetheless put things more succinctly and say things in a much more laid back way while conveying the real essence of things. One of these is a favourite of mine:
“We just get to hang out”
Yea, ‘we just get to hang out’. But for the writer to the Hebrews, this is Christian teaching about the deep and prayerful quality of community life that it expresses. And the influence of God runs through its life as a golden thread. Churches ‘hang out’ in a particular way and the strong bonds of friendship they encourage are mediated in corporate prayer and holy communion:
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.
God has brought us to this place, the City of the living God, a place of radical inclusiveness, of generous welcome, and of the wonder that resides in the communal and particularly in its capacity to look both within and outside itself. But its life is sure. Christ has made it so. It is the divine society , with Christ as the glory in the midst of it and the transforming and liberating Spirit at work within it.
Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity
18th Aug 2019
Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity Year C
Jesus said to his disciples: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled’. Luke 12.49.
In the Letter to the Hebrews, we have been learning these past two weeks of the Old Testament people, God’s chosen people Israel. Theirs was a history of struggle to maintain their faith in God at times of great testing. But in all this they knew that God is a God who is nearby and not far off, though occasionally they behaved as though that were not the case. They were very human and often weak. Nonetheless what drove them on was an indomitable faith in their destiny and a courage in following it. And the message of our second reading this morning is that if our Christian faith is real, it will be a faith which will be put to the test. The can be no relationship with God which does not involve passionate struggle. But like the Old Testament people, God is feeding us and loving us. .
It is important to speak of God in this way. We come to this Holy Eucharist to receive Christ in the forms of bread and wine. They become for us the body and blood of Christ and so when we receive them we are taking Christ into ourselves. We are in the words of one prayer ‘Becoming what we receive’.
As this broken bread was scattered as grain upon the mountains, and, being gathered together, became one, so may thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into thy Kingdom; for thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever and ever.
From The Didache, a First Century Christian Document.
As we come to the Gospel reading we realise however that membership of the Church is not only a matter of ‘becoming what we have received’ as though that were our own privileged secret. Christianity is not a private or pietistic religion. There is another aspect of the call of Christ which is altogether different and which speaks of ‘bringing fire on earth’ and ‘not peace, but division’. Jesus accuses his disciples of lacking the stuff necessary to realise their baptismal calling. They do not have what we might call ‘fire in their bellies’. “I have” Jesus says “A baptism to be baptized and how I long for it to be completed”. The inference is that the disciples, and we too, are not always ready to accept a Christianity which demands more than our casual allegiance.
Linking the two passages is the idea of God’s Kingdom which has already come in Jesus Christ and which is provided for us in this Eucharist. But there is another Kingdom, the one which is in a state of becoming, and which is suggested by Jesus’ words. This involves struggle. The working out and the continual establishment of God’s kingdom on earth will take place both in harmony with the existing state of things and also in strong, fire-like opposition to it. Its reaction to the world in which it is placed will be volcanic. Our modern world and what is going in in our modern world, including knife crime, the Rise and fall and rise of unchecked money markets, violence in schools and with the police, drugs everywhere – these are but a tiny fraction of all those elements that exist in a kind of alchemic reaction to the Christian presence on this earth. We The Church are called to love God’s world, not possessively as ‘my little world’ but passionately, as that world which bids us to suffer alongside it, to love it and to speak up and speak out in its defence for what we come to know as ‘Kingdom values’ – of human compassion, of inclusiveness, of the embrace of difference. The Church is called to be God’s presence in the world. That presence is never to be benign but active and involved and compassionate. It stands for the living out of that courageous baptism which acknowledges all people to be part of the one Kingdom, whether they know it or not, whether they ‘feel’ it or not and even when they oppose that Kingdom. The Salvation Army motto ‘Blood and Fire’ is a typical reference to its own desire to engender a Christianity with real passion, one which has plenty of ‘fire in its belly’ and which fearlessly proclaims God among the poor.
I met a Scottish football supporter earlier this week who needed to tell me that he wasn’t a Christian. He wasn’t a Christian because he had his own moral values and didn’t need the Church to ‘improve’ on them! It would have been good to have had what we both wanted - a long and friendly conversation. But it was not to be… He had to get off to the England/Scotland match and I had to get to Mass. There are so many like him. They have difficulties with the Christian Church and feel that unless these difficulties are allayed, then Christianity must lie as a dead thing before them. Except that I think it does not and can never exist as dead. It is everywhere alive. The presence of Christ on this earth exists in strong relation to the world in which it is set and yet also exists as its life itself, and Christian Faith from us must be confident, refreshed by God and his Word, and deepened in prayer if it is to find that fire-in-the-belly doggedness which is the living spark that keeps alight the divine flame. How we wish that the flame would burn brighter, but how we are sustained and given joyful confidence in the fire that has already been lit by Jesus Christ.
Onwards and upwards!