Sermon for the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul
25th Jan 2015
The Feast of the Conversion of St Paul
Sunday 25th January 2015
It is not possible to over-estimate the place that St Paul has for the Christian Church. More than any other man, he shaped and determined how The Christian Church was to develop and grow. He started out as a well-educated Jew, a Pharisee of the Tribe of Benjamin, and was possessed of a great education and with privileged Roman citizenship. His background cut across many social and class barriers. At first Paul, then known as Saul of Tarsus, opposed the early Christian movement, known as ‘The Way’ and assisted in the stoning of St Stephen the Martyr. His job was as a paid persecutor of Christians, a tough state policeman. It was while persecuting the Christians and on the way to Damascus, that Saul, experienced a dramatic conversion. He heard the voice of God saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He fell from his horse. Blinded, he was then brought into the city itself. A disciple of the Way named Ananias becomes the means by which Paul, on receiving the laying on of hands, receives his sight once more. But interestingly, as Ananias receives the call from God to go to Saul and to lay hands on him, he is disquieted and uncertain, as it is evident that this man is regarded as an evil influence. Nonetheless, God tells Ananias that he must not entertain such qualms. This man is to be God’s ‘chosen instrument’. We learn only that later, Paul becomes a powerful and influential spokesman and defender of the Christian Way and that the locals in Damascus are astounded at this about turn. God's ways are not ous, his choices must often confound us.
The Conversion of St Paul, as dramatic as it is, provides us with important clues as to the emergence of the early Church from a small movement to an international Church. The calling of such a man is an immediate indication that God has chosen someone both inside and outside the community of Jewish Faith within which the very early Christin community was embedded. But in Saul, the Jewish intellectual and activist, soon to be given the Latin name ‘Paul’, God has made his intention well and truly known. For this is a man who will meet James and Peter, disciples of Jesus, in Jerusalem, and will come to argue fiercely for the advancement of the Christian Way beyond the confines of Jewish custom. And the two well-worn traditions he will challenge are the Jewish temple sacrifices and the Jewish food laws. He will go further and declare The Jewish Law to be null and void. He will do all this not through intellectual argument. He will instead give his life to that same Jesus of Nazareth who has become for him and the world he inhabits the promised Messiah and the Saviour of Mankind. The voice of the one who met him on the Damascus Road.But the means by which the voice is embodied lies for Paul in the Cross of Christ:
But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Galatians 6.14
And yet for him, the Cross itself must remain a sign of contradiction:
…for we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.
1 Corinthian 1.23
For Paul, once Saul, the Cross of Christ is to become HIS cross, and the life and the sacrificial witness and the words of Christ HIS life. It was after all God who had reminded Saul that it was not the Christian followers, but Jesus whom he was persecuting. Saul’s conversion is a conversion of life and a transformation of the mind and the heart given in passionate service to the Jesus who had called him on the road.
It becomes Paul’s life’s work to live his life as a Christian for whom the Cross becomes, well, as we say, ‘crucial’ to everything he does, everything he is, and everything he declares in the name of Jesus Christ. This must mean for him a life of faith mingled with acute suffering. The conversion is the conversion whose real meaning must lie in the fulfilment of God’s call for him in this world with the hope of the glory in Christ was has already been promised, but which must lie beyond mortal life. In such a way, St Paul inscribes, marks out, the way of life for all Christians in the manner of Christ in the outpouring of his life and its relation to our mortality and death.
The idea of conversion has of course become somewhat unfashionable for many. It suggests some kind of instant human transformation for which we feel obviously unprepared and unfitted. Alongside this, people may feel that talk of conversion of mind and body suggests some kind of mind control which is invasive and unhealthy. On the other hand, for many Christians there has indeed been a dramatic and very personal conversion. Many can cite a time and a place and an event which once and for all spoke to them of their need of God and confirmed and called them into the Christian life. The remembrance of this call is sustaining and life-giving. For others, conversion might be acknowledged in a different though not unrelated manner. We may speak of that conversion to Christ which might become for us a daily offering of prayer and intention. Me may in such a way give our lives, not in blind self-abandonment, but quietly and firmly and solidly as a mark of our Christian Faith and the ready willingness to serve God with our lives:
Take my life and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
Take my moments and my days,
Let them flow in endless praise.
Take my hands and let them move
At the impulse of Thy love.
Take my feet and let them be
Swift and beautiful for Thee.
Take my voice and let me sing,
Always, only for my King.
Take my lips and let them be
Filled with messages from Thee.
Take my silver and my gold,
Not a mite would I withhold.
Take my intellect and use
Every pow’r as Thou shalt choose.
Take my will and make it Thine,
It shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart, it is Thine own,
It shall be Thy royal throne.
Take my love, my Lord, I pour
At Thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself and I will be
Ever, only, all for Thee.
It is in this manner that it becomes possible to speak of a daily conversion to Christ. Typically we can express this in our daily prayers, even if they are short or simple ones. We can and should offer our lives to God each day. Many of the greatest ever Christians have offered their lives to God like this! Their lives and the life of God in Jesus Christ has involved the enjoining of one, life-long conversation, one life-long, passionate hope.
It is clear that in the life of St Paul, as perhaps no other human being, we have a glimpse into a life which places itself before God and is in active dialogue with him. His experience of life as a continuing conversation enables him to think and speak and act for God in one act of continuing renewal. But Paul’s is not a conversation borne of nothing, or based on a flight of fancy. It is a conversation realised between his personal experience of God’s life in Jesus through the Cross, and his own life as a crucial offering. The two become dramatically made one. We find it set out as a written witness in the letters of Paul. We read of it in the New Testament. His words continue, two thousand years later, to bristle with that same passionate and raw energy which brought Saul of Tarsus, thrown from his horse, blinded and collapsed, to serve Christ while on the road to Damascus.
Sermon for the Baptism of Christ
11th Jan 2015
The Baptism of Christ
When we speak of a ‘Baptism of Fire’ we suggest an experience which is likely to demand a great deal and which will leave an indelible mark. It will mark a person and their life’s experience in a way which is likely to influence them once and for all. The origins of this expression are found in relation to martyrdom but came to refer to an initial experience of warfare. In a Baptism of Fire you definitely feel the heat! It is a fire which burns amid trials of many kinds, and after the burning something new may manifest itself. A Baptism of Fire might involve struggle and loss, and yet within all that there may emerge the promise of something re-made.
This is true of the Baptism of Christ. This morning we are ‘light years’ away from last Sunday’s glorious Bethlehem Epiphany. Christmas decorations have been put away, and now the Epiphany is the manifestation in Christ: not now of the manifestation of visible glory in the infant but of the graphic spelling out of His identity and destiny at the inauguration of his adult ministry. The Baptism of Jesus makes evident the intimate relation between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. The coming of Christ fulfills the identity of the Trinity and of its promise. And so John’s urgent explanations of his status in relation to Jesus are silenced. They are superseded in Jesus’ own submission to divine authority. It is fitting for Jesus to be baptized by John not in order to proclaim a status but ‘to do what righteousness demands’. Now, obedience to the Father’s will is the identifying mark of Christ as Son of God, a name which naturally follows ‘Emmanuel – God with us’. As beloved Son of God, Jesus has a destiny to fulfill. His Baptism is to take him and us into the realm which plunges him into the true and original Baptism of Fire. This Baptism will be for the making of a new world.
Those who are baptized have disappeared under the surface of Christ's love and reappeared as different people. The waters close over their heads and then, like the old world rising out of the watery chaos in the first chapter of the Bible, out comes a new world.
Archbishop Rowan Williams Tokens of Trust, p.112.
And what of our Baptisms of Fire? Perhaps it is possible for us to identify those times in our lives when we have undergone a distinct and rigorous testing. We have ‘been through it’ as we say. And life still ‘puts us through it’ in many ways. While most of us would never voluntarily submit to any baptism of fire, we may recall past pain and difficulty, either in a distinct or indistinct manner. We may own to bearing the scars or wounds of difficult experiences. We may occasionally smart from its reappearance in the present as an ‘old wound’. Perhaps only in retrospect do we feel ourselves to have survived, and all too often only ‘after a fashion’. We may regard these experiences as related in some sense to the persons we have become. The manner of our survival with the loss of something once held surer is now joined with the strong presentiment of what now remains true for us. This is a kind of truth which has become as it were our remains; or of WHAT remains. Or what remains of us… “With the breaking comes the re-making” said another Archbishop of Canterbury, Donald Coggan. This is no easy matter.
But it has been seen now as ‘the making of us’; the making of our truer identity. But this is of course not inevitable. We must use the means of grace to enjoy the hope of glory to come, which is our truer re-making in the divine image. By these means we may learn a new and joyful and liberating obedience in and for what we have always called ‘God’s good time’. And it is in the manner of our obedience that a truer peace may be found to exist after all. This has its showing for us this morning in the Christ who submits to John’s Baptism for righteousness sake and who in his submission in the deep waters, now re-emerges as the One in whom God the Father may declare to be His Son. Christ’s Baptism has been for the sealing of this new relationship of understandings, whose source is found in the Holy Trinity and whose outcome is to be vouchsafed in it and by it in the sending of the Holy Spirit.
The final note which the Baptism of Christ strikes for this world is that there can be no emergent life without solid trust. The submission of Jesus to the divine will is one which is maintained by the Trinity in trust. This is the very relationship of trust which has been gifted to the Baptized. For it has incorporated us into the promise made in the Baptism of Christ Himself. Our practice of Christian Faith is to be one in which we gladly and freely accept our status as recipients of God’s grace, so that in God’s own time, the promises of his glory in us may at last be revealed, not in the abstract, but out of the substance of who we are and what has made us what we have become.
And so the yearning strong
With which the soul will long
Shall far out pass the power of human telling;
For none can guess its grace
Till he become the place
Wherein the Holy Spirit makes his dwelling.
‘Come Down O Love Divine’ Bianco da Siena, d.1434.
Sermon for the Epiphany Festival of the Guild of Servants of the Sanctuary
10th Jan 2015
Sermon for the Epiphany Festival of the Guild of Servants of the Sanctuary
Saturday 10th January 2015
Fr Christopher Cawrse, Parish Priest, Holy Cross Church, Cromer Street, London WC1H 8JU.
The Guild Collect:
Grant, we beseech Thee, Almighty God, to us thy servants, the spirit of holy fear: that we, following the example of Thy holy child Samuel, may faithfully minister before Thee in Thy Sanctuary; through Jesus Christ Thy Son our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
One of the most blessed experiences of my life has been to wander around the hot streets of Rome and then, to descend down from the street pavement and into the ancient catacombs below. In making this descent down you travel back in time and at the same time experience a rapid and blissful cooling of temperature. But it is the going back in time that strikes you hard as you realise you are in an enormous and ancient underground cemetery, and then, as your eyes get used to the strange semi- light you see what seem to be countless shelves carved in the soft chalk and going on for ever, like a great empty stone library. But most fascinating of all is the ancient graffiti, the names and the countless inscribed crosses, carved by stones and knives and which tell us something about the passionate Christian Faith of the early Church. And above all the desire, the need to communicate that faith joyfully.
The Christian tradition of the ‘Chalking of the Door’ has been revived in recent years and offers us the chance to indulge in another bit of graffiti. This time with the carved initials of the three Kings, Caspar, Balthasazar and Melchior, with the first and last two numbers of the date, ‘20’ and ‘15’ inscribed on either side of them, hence for tis year 20+C+M+B+15. At a time when many outside of the Church accuse us of hiding our light under a bushel, or being far too apologetic or hesitant about our Faith, the idea of Christian graffiti is the one which openly declares itself and takes pride and joy in doing so. Each mark , each movement of the chisel or the crayon or the chalk is a bold and confident one. And in like manner we gather for this Epiphany Festival as GSS (with more than a dash of ACS) to express the joy we feel in marking this time as one of proper pride in the expression of our Catholic Faith and the call to bear witness.
We are here, too, for a more specific purpose, and that is to celebrate and give thanks for who we are as Guild Servants of the Sanctuary. And what kind of mark, I wonder, is placed on the one who has become accustomed to serve the Church as a servant, or server of the sanctuaries of our churches up and down this land and even beyond it? The Guild collect speaks dramatically of ‘the spirit of holy fear’. It reckons the sanctuary as the place of holiness. To serve in the sanctuary is to inhabit that holy place in a very significant way, and I hope that for many of you your experience as an altar server was akin to mine. As a young child and adolescent I went to church at St Peter’s, Plymouth. Its Vicar was then Fr David Vickery, a generous eccentric and former Curate of All Saints’, Margaret Street, who was a real stickler in the sanctuary. He was known to send notes to his junior clergy on which began the introductory line ‘Father you made nine mistakes at the Mass this morning’. To another he emitted the memorable phrase ‘Glide, dear, don’t bustle’. He was insistent that a broken lavabo bowl be replaced with one ordered from the Waterford factory in Ireland. Only the best would do for God. And as a server you were walking a very narrow and nervous tight rope, and you needed to know what you were doing. Many in the Church now ridicule this way as excessively controlling but the result is all too often a liturgical approach that is sloppy and where servers look vague lost, bored and bewildered.
The St Peter’s sanctuary bristled with life-giving, holy fear. I have to say that I learnt more about the holiness of the church at St Peter’s as a server in its sanctuary than I have ever done before or since. There was an attention here not to fripperies but to something which underlay them in the sanctuary, something essential and profound. What Cardinal Newman once termed ‘God’s presence and his very self and essence all divine’. It is to this experience of the strong presence of God that overtook my life and decided me to write to the ACS at the age of seventeen to enquire about their vocations conferences. But that is another story. Coming from a great Catholic tradition I believe that my parish priest, for all his excessive eye to detail had something strong in mind and in heart. He cared for the sanctuary and what went on in the sanctuary and showed an innate sense of what liturgy was for : to communicate the presence and the love and the mystery which is God and to excite a holy wonder, so much a part of the message of the Epiphany Feast. Proper liturgy, of which proper serving is a part, is the one means by which the holiness of God’s Church, emanating from the sanctuary, can be seen and known and experienced in the here and now. It is the Church’s sustenance, its life and its inspiration. And so all who come here today, you Guild of Servers of the Sanctuary remain a much privileged and valued part of the life of God’s Church. May you continue to serve Him in the sanctuary as the infant Samuel served God in the temple, whose diligence and awakenness to the holiness and the closeness of God allowed him to respond in kind to the call to that same holiness ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’. This was the same voice, which, before he even knew it, was indelibly inscribed upon his heart, and which was never to leave him; that sense of the holiness of God which would for all his life remain his guiding light. May it be yours, also.
But it all began in the sanctuary, the place of holiness, in which dwelt the spirit of ‘holy fear’ :
Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany
4th Jan 2015
Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany
Today is The Feast of the Epiphany - that great festival on which Christians have celebrated the manifestation, or showing forth, of the glory of God in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh.
Just as the showing forth of the glory of God in Christ takes many different forms, so our season of Epiphany commemorates many different things. First, the coming of the wise men from the East to worship at the cradle of the Infant Christ; then The Baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan by John the Baptist, with the voice from heaven declaring that this Jesus is the beloved son of God; then the visit of Jesus, at twelve years old, to the Temple at Jerusalem, where the learned doctors were astonished by his understanding and his answers; and then, a series of Jesus' miracles: the changing of water into wine at the marriage feast at Cana; the healing of a leper, and the centurion's palsied servant; and the calming of the troubled sea. Then, at the end of the season of Epiphany, we have prophetic lessons about the final coming of the Son of God, in power and great glory.
Many different things - a great diversity of commemorations; yet they are tied together by one common theme. They are all aspects of the showing forth, the shining forth, the "Epiphany" of the divine glory of Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of God, the Eternal Word of God, made flesh. Thus these many commemorations of Epiphany make up a continuing meditation upon the meaning of the Christmas miracle - the miracle of God with us, God in our flesh, Emmanuel, God visible to human eyes, God audible to human ears, God tangible to human touch, God manifest in human life, judging, restoring, and transforming our world by the grace and truth he brings.
On the Feast of Epiphany we commemorate the coming of the wise men. Those learned travellers - perhaps Chaldean scientists, astronomers (actually, we know very little about them) - came first to Jerusalem, the Royal City, the obvious place to look for the new-born Jewish King. But, instructed by the Scriptures, they were directed further on, to Bethlehem, and it was a strange sort of King they found there: they found a little child there, with Mary, his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. There, at the stable in Bethlehem, they offered their symbolic gifts; gold, acknowledging a king; incense, the symbol of God's presence; and myrrh, the ancient funeral spice, recognizing the mortal human nature of the Son of God, destined to suffer and to die in sacrifice for all mankind.
What was there, after all, about the humble manger scene to suggest the divinity, the kingship, and the sacrificial destiny of the Infant Christ? How was divine glory shown forth there? Surely, it was a glory visible only to the eyes of faith: faith, to see in a helpless infant, who cannot even stutter, the Almighty Word of God; faith, to see the King of Kings, and Lord of all the worlds, in a swaddled baby, who cries for mother's milk; faith, to see the Very Son of God in the poverty of a cattle stall, exposed to all the bitter winds of human indifference and disdain and the arrival of impending danger.
It does seem unwise of the wise men to come to Bethlehem and to seek after a helpless babe born of Jewish artisan parents. But this is their wisdom: a restless wisdom which seeks to find something previously unknown, something that will change their lives and the lives of others for their own good. This is a reminder that faith ever calls us back, to work out our salvation in the common, everyday life of the Christian fellowship, the disciplined routines of Christian worship, prayer and study, and in works of Christian charity. And yet faith also beckons us forward, is a point of departure, and our response to the given-ness of God’s grace is to accept it and to follow our guiding star, wherever it will lead us…
Christian life is not about emotional excitement: it is rather the careful, thoughtful learning of the Word of God, day by day, year by year; the nutriment of the Christian sacraments, and the deeds of love and mercy which flow from Christian charity. In the normal, everyday things of the Church's life - the words of Scripture, prayers and sermons, the outward signs of sacraments - the world sees only human words, only poor and common things: halting human speech, a bit of water, bits of bread and wine, and so on. But faith has eyes to see in all these things the shining forth, the "Epiphany" of the Son of God, the miracle of God with us, Emmanuel. And faith has gifts to offer him; not much, perhaps, in worldly terms, but by his own grace we have that one best gift, acknowledging his divinity, his kingship, and his sacrifice, the gift he treasures most - the gift of adoration, the gift of the humble obedience of mind and heart.
Epiphany is a time to go with the wise men and “to see what things have come to pass”. It is a time to follow our deeper instincts and to go for that which has the power to make us whole. And our response is one which finds us here at worship, in this place and at this time each week we kneel before the God who appeared to the wise men as an infant child and who comes to us now as our life’s true nourishment and with it the experience and the promise of the glory which was and is and is to come.
"Fear not to enter his courts, in the slenderness
Of the poor wealth thou canst reckon as thine,
Truth in its beauty and love in its tenderness,
These are the offerings to lay on his shrine.
O Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness;
Bow down before him, his glory proclaim;
With gold of obedience and incense of lowliness
Kneel and adore him; the Lord is his Name!"