Sermon for St Peter and St Paul
28th Jun 2020
Sermon for Saints Peter and Paul Holy Cross Church Cromer Street 2020.
We remember today Saints Peter and Paul who guided the early church just after the time of Jesus. Both died as martyrs for the faith in Rome, in the early 60’s, just thirty years after the death of Jesus. Peter was crucified upside down in the courtyard to the left of St. Peter’s Basilica (in the courtyard behind the arch where the Swiss Guards stand on duty) and Paul was beheaded between Rome and the sea, in a place now called Tre Fontane (Italian for three fountains after the legend that the three springs in the spot mark the three places where Paul’s head bounced after being beheaded).
Peter was buried in the nearest cemetery which was on top of Vatican Hill and St. Peter’s Basilica was later built on top of Peter’s tomb, the main altar being directly on top of his tomb. (Announcement of the results of excavation by Pope Pius XII and an account by an archaeologist) Paul was also buried in the nearest cemetery and the Basilica of St. Paul’s outside the Walls was later build on top of his tomb, the main altar being directly on top of his tomb.
Each of these two saints is important for different reasons. Peter is important because he was the first of the apostles and kept the church united which was growing very rapidly in the years following Pentecost. In the first years after Pentecost it was Jews who accepted Jesus as the Saviour and so the early church was a very Jewish church. But as time went on Paul began to preach also to non-Jews, the Gentiles as they were called. All of us are Gentiles. His preaching was very successful and he brought huge numbers of non-Jews into the church, so much so that the number of Jews in the church was greatly outnumbered by non-Jews. It is because of Paul that we are now in the Church. So both Peter and Paul had very important tasks in the early church, Peter maintaining the unity in the church which during his lifetime had already spread throughout the Middle East and Europe, and Paul who taught the Jews that Jesus is the fulfilment of their Old Testament hopes and taught the non-Jews that Jesus is the Saviour. Whenever you see statues of Peter and Paul, usually Peter is holding a key, symbolizing his duty as head of the church, and Paul is holding the Bible, symbolizing his preaching.
In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul tells us something of the difficulties in his preaching journeys (2 Corinthians 11:24-25,27):
Five times I have been given the thirty-nine lashes by the Jews; three times I have been beaten with sticks; once I was stoned; three times I have been shipwrecked, and once I have been in the open sea for a day and a night; I have worked with unsparing energy, for many nights without sleep; I have been hungry and thirsty, and often altogether without food or drink; I have been cold and lacked clothing.
Three times Paul set out from Syria where he was based and preached all over what we now call Turkey, and in his second and third journeys he preached all over Greece also. Although not one of the Twelve Apostles we call him an apostle of the nations.
It is interesting to note the personalities of both Peter and Paul. Peter was impetuous, telling Jesus that he would die with him on Holy Thursday night if necessary (John 13:37) but later that night he denied he knew him. We also remember Peter’s objection to Jesus’ prediction that he would suffer and die in Jerusalem and Jesus said ‘Get behind me Satan because the way you think is man’s way and not God’s way’ (Matt 16:23). Yet what made Peter a suitable candidate for Jesus’ call was his love, so three times Jesus asked him if he loved him and asked him to look after the flock.
Paul was a controversial character in his own way. He had a fiery personality. In his early life he channelled that fire towards persecuting the Christians in Jerusalem, even witnessing the death of Stephen, the first martyr for Jesus (Acts 8:1). After his conversion Paul’s preaching was fiery and upset the churches. In Acts we read that Paul then returned to Tarsus, and the next sentence says it all, “the churches throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria were left in peace” (9:31). Paul spent 10 years back in Tarsus before he began his preaching. It was a time for him to cool down and learn what the death and resurrection of Jesus meant for us all. Why did God call Paul? Paul was a highly educated Pharisee and it would be only someone like him who could see that faith in Jesus demanded a totally new relationship with God for Jews, and also he had a very strong personality which he needed to help the Jews to accept that Jesus was the Saviour of all peoples, and that because of Jesus there is no difference between Jew and non-Jew. Paul had the strong personality needed for that daring challenge and the insight to see that faith in Jesus the fulfilment of their Old Testament hopes was now required for salvation.
As we look at the personalities of Peter and Paul, we see that God called them to use their personalities to spread the Gospel, Peter to use his impetuous love to look after the flock, and Paul to use his training as a Pharisee and his strength of character to ensure that the non-Jews would be welcomed into the church. It is a reminder to us that our talents and our weaknesses too can become God’s means of helping others, if we allow. We don’t have to be perfect for God to work through us, God can work through us, faults and all, as he did with Peter and Paul.
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Trinity
21st Jun 2020
Trinity 2 Year A Semon
'I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household’
Sometimes scripture comforts us; and sometimes it is so uncomfortable that we’d rather avoid what it says. But if we are to grow in our faith and to present a faithful, mature version of Christianity to the world then we need to grapple with these difficult texts, trusting God to reveal himself to us. So why did Jesus say those things about the family which we have heard today?
‘Family life’ and the past embrace in the Church of England of ‘Family Services’ attempted to express a catch all expression for one homogenous unity, a strong bulwark against anyone or any influence which would stray from its delineated borders. The idea of family could speak of a family as a predictable set of givens, and of certainties. But at the same time families have been volatile. There are those stories of people being forever excluded when they marry someone of whom their family disapproves, and we may add the exclusion experienced by many elderly relatives find that the family forgets to include them, fails to visit, leaves them - in their neediest time - alone. There are families which have rejected and excluded gay sons and daughters and societies acting for families in marginalising them, imprisoning them and even sentencing them to death.
We see Jesus distanced himself from society’s so-called Family Values and even from his own family. He would not make an idol of the family, as the rest of society had. Time and time again in the gospels we hear him make statements like, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’ or ‘There is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come have eternal life.’ And today’s incendiary remarks,
‘Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.’
So what on earth does Jesus mean by these words?
First of all, a couple of statements about what his teaching on the family is not. Whilst there will obviously be a place for the family in the future of God’s people, we must not make an idol of it, and we must be prepared to reshape it in the light of the values of God’s kingdom. We are being called to an even greater love. The baptised are a people exploring a new way to be human together with God : life as lived in Jesus Christ. ‘If we become one in a death like his we will certainly become one in a resurrection like his’ Romans 6.3. The is a oneness proceeding not our of blood ties but out of the one incorporation into Christ Himself. In stretching the boundaries of existing love the Christian is being challenged to extend the purpose of love’s endeavour.
“Morning glory, starlit sky” (From his book ‘Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense’.
W H Vanstone (1923-1999)
1. Morning glory, starlit sky,
soaring music, scholar’s truth,
flight of swallows, autumn leaves,
memory’s treasure, grace of youth:
2. Open are the gifts of God,
gifts of love to mind and sense;
hidden is love’s agony,
love’s endeavor, love’s expense.
3. Love that gives, gives ever more,
gives with zeal, with eager hands,
spares not, keeps not, all outpours,
ventures all its all expends.
4. Drained is love in making full,
bound in setting others free,
poor in making many rich,
weak in giving power to be.
5. Therefore he who shows us God
helpless hangs upon the tree;
and the nails and crown of thorns
tell of what God’s love must be.
6. Here is God: no monarch he,
throned in easy state to reign;
here is God, whose arms of love
aching, spent, the world sustain.
The Baptised are not a nuclear family – the relationships actually transcend so-called family values. No wonder then that the Christian Community is referred to by St Paul, writing only two decades after the death of Christ as ‘The Body of Christ’. Here refers to a body of faithful people not identified by family or cult status but as an organic unity. Families are alive to one other, exclusively; but the baptised are to be alive to God – which is an all-inclusive, all-embracing aliveness.
The baptised person is not only in the middle of human suffering and muddle but in the middle of the love and delight of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. That surely is one of the most extraordinary mysteries of being Christian. We are in the middle of two things that seem quite contradictory: in the middle of the heart of God, the ecstatic joy of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; and in the middle of a world of threat, suffering, sin and pain. And because Jesus had taken his stand right in the middle of those two realities, that is where we take ours. ‘Where I am, there will my servant be also’ (John 12.26).
The Baptised are a people joined together in relationship with God, joined together with other believers who may be in some ways quite different from you, from all walks of life, and especially the in the embracing of the poorest, the neediest, and those whom society and its nuclear families have shunned and rejected. The Christian community which we call The Church is not a self-selecting group of people; a sect. It relates to God in such a way as its energy is directed outward and away from selfish or narrow tribal instincts. The Church is to model that ambitious challenge, laid down by Christ this morning ‘Those who lose their life (in this way) will find it’.
We, the Baptised, are placed in this world to remember the forgotten ones, to include the excluded ones, to bring peace to the conflicted ones, to visit the unvisited ones, to nurture life and love and hope where family and society has failed to deliver these things. Like our Lord, breaking down barriers, transcending boundaries, muddying the waters in joyous activity - these are the marks of the Baptised, to whom we belong. It is to this that we being called.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. Romans 6.3
Sermon for the First Sunday after Trinity (Remembering Corpus Christi)
14th Jun 2020
Sermon for Trinity 1 2020 (Year A)
Ordinary Sundays of the Year and also Corpus Christi 2020
The Christian faith and the emergence of the Church owes its existence to the fact that God had chosen to make himself known to us through Jesus and through his saving death and resurrection.
This had for the early Church become their ‘new normal’. The life of the Church was express as fully as possible the life of Christ. What emerged was a diverse community whose binding identity lay in the fact of its being a Eucharistic community. Christ’s body given to the Christians summoned from them to repeat this action in themselves and to become the Body of Christ.
The Greek Sisters at the Church of the Holy Sepulcre in Jerusalem anoint the very stone upon which the dead Christ was laid as though that body was still there. A beautiful and moving and direct action in which the message to make Christ live in the present is being stated. In similar vein we will ring our church bell this evening at 6 pm to remember the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire and express our solidarity with those who seek to bring about necessary change.
The Christian call is both clear and very present and it makes demands upon our sense of what is normal for ourselves and for our communities and for our world. The new normal which Christ establishes in his death and resurrection is the one which continually tests itself for its thoughts and actions. Tests itself too for the lumbering way in which our unconscious human prejudices have been become normalised as the unheeded ‘normal’ of routine existence. The pattern that we have been given in our self-examination, our Christian consciousness is the one in which before all else God has made everyone of us in his image and likeness. Though, through our own weakness we make distinctions and limit God’s love, we know that for God there are no such distinctions, be they ever so fine…The recent death of George Floyd in the middle of this Coronavirus pandemic is a powerful reminder that our world and our outlook onto that world, calls for healing action, calls for the disturbance of complacency, calls for us to examine our routine mind set and to find the words and the actions that bear witness to the ‘God with us’. The playing and replaying of his dying holds a mirror to the world’s conscience. The world of pain and injustice is the ground and place which calls for the healing balm of real social awareness and active compassion. For Christians it is a call to return to turn to Christ who stands for what was once called ‘the healing of the nations’.
The rite for Holy Communion in The Book of Common Prayer placed greatest significance on the reception of the Eucharistic elements. “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul into everlasting life. The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul into everlasting life”. There is an intimate connect between the the life of Christ and our lives and their courses and their ultimate destination. Our relationship to the Christ we proclaim is one which is both spiritual, and of flesh and blood in the here and now:
“Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Crying: ‘What I do is me!’ for that I came
for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of all our faces.”
Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins.
What this means for us is that there is no aspect of human nature for which the self-giving life of Christ does not offer its manifest love. For us moderns we look to Picasso’s painting of the weeping Dora Marr and to his Guernica, and also to the visceral paintings of Francis Bacon. There we find this quality of a humanity which is not benign, nor is it one to which we can ever feel indifference. It is shot with its own powerful significance. It involves us as it weeps and sleeps and hurts and bleeds and worries and depresses and breaks down and laughs and celebrates and wonders and hopes and mourns and dies…. The identification with the Christ who has come to live among us and to make his home with us and to die for us vital to our understanding of the Christ who has come in the flesh. It is what we call his Incarnation. For John this is ‘full of grace and truth’. And we come closest to this fullness of grace and truth in the receiving of Christ in the Eucharist. And in this manner we receive Christ’s body and Blood for our own sanctification.
The Anima Christi (St Ignatius Loyola)
Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, overwhelm me.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O Good Jesus, hear me.
Within Thy wounds hide me.
Suffer me not to be separated from thee.
From the malign enemy defend me.
In the hour of my death call me.
And bid me come unto Thee,
That with all Thy saints,
I may praise thee
Forever and ever.
To celebrate Corpus Christi (‘The Body of Christ’) is to express what we believe - that the Incarnation reaches into our lives more intimately than we might be comfortable to admit. God does not behold his human creation with disdain, but floods into our lives, loving us back into wholeness. Corpus Christi is an answer to the doubters that this man, Jesus, does indeed give us his flesh to eat because he gives us his word that he will; and, moreover, that it will fill us with life when we open their hearts to receive the Word made flesh.
Christ was the word that spake it.
He took the bread and break it;
And what his words did make it
That I believe and take it.
(Reputedly spoken by Princess Elizabeth when questioned on her beliefs on the Eucharist in Mary's reign)
Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2020
7th Jun 2020
Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Trinity
Holy Cross Church Cromer Street
The doctrine of the Trinity calls to attention to the fact that God lives in relation to Himself and to us. The three Persons of the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, ever loving each other, ever sustaining and being sustained, constantly circling and moving around each other, are three persons inseparable and mutually sustaining. The Trinity is what community looks like. Genuine community, which exists for the flourishing of all parts in relation to the whole.
Equality and co-operation lie at the heart of the Trinity, and the flourishing of human society will only come through a combination of equality and diversity, a society in which all people can give from their diversity and share the riches of the common life. The doctrine of the Trinity compels us to work for such a flourishing. This is the call to ‘search out and know’ what makes up our own society even as we are ‘searched out and known’ by God. That ‘searching and knowing’ will lead us to examine those parts of the whole which are sick and in need of healing, and for the police forces an ever more sustained and determined searching out of pockets of extremism and blind violence where they are being harbored. Knife killings have shocked us all and torn away at our natural sense of things. The hope for the Church is that we may renew our life and witness in the light of the God whose love is not coercive or dictatorial but relational and kind. This message will remain unheeded unless it is expressed in churches like this one in the maintenance of a communal life which is radically inclusive, compassionate and spiritual. We must never neglect the Christian gift nor underestimate its needfulness and significance in a pressure cooker society straining under the stress of its complexity and living, as it were without God,
Conrad Noel, known as the ‘Red’ Vicar of Thaxted in Essex was infamous for raising the red flag over his church. He had certain extreme views as a communist but was also the second son of an Earl and a rabble rouser. But he could write powerfully and sets the Holy Trinity within our very own human being:
Let us consider the Blessed Trinity as the source of our own personal lives, and of the world. Each one of us is a trinity in unity – body, mind, spirit: the disunity between these is not according to the original intention of the Triune God. The world has in it plenty of variety, but the variety is not always healthy, is often antagonistic and discordant, because it is not a variety in unity, and does not express the ‘Three in One and One in Three’. It cannot be said of the world as at present constituted that it contains no differences or inequalities, or that within it ‘none is afore or after other; none is greater or lesser than another’. We look forward to a world of infinite variety in harmony, of living unity, not of dead uniformity; if man is to create so delightful a world he must ‘thus think of the Trinity’, for it is the will of the Trine God to inspire us all to renew the world in such a way as to make it a perfect expression of his Being.
The hymn “I bind unto myself today”, better known as ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’ contains is a statement of Trinitarian faith, coming out of the Celtic tradition. Its text is attributed to St Patrick, and the wonderful hymn has sweeping Gaelic cadences and is difficult to sing. Yet it has its own natural exuberance and is a song which joys in the entire created order set in within its Trinitarian context. It’s a celebration both of life and of the author of life, of God. All life has a divine source. Humans may flourish within the divinely created order in a kind of dance, which draws all together in the recognition of the one humanity. John 15 “…for cut off from me you can do nothing”. The source of this harmony lies in the Triune God, the ‘Three-in-One’ who know and love and are intimate with one other.
The mutual intimacy between the three persons of the Trinity is best captured in the classical icon by Andrei Rublev (c.1360-1430). The original title for the icon is, “Three angels at Mamre.” Early Christian writers saw the story of Abraham welcoming the three angels under the tree at Mamre (Gen 18:1-15) as the precursor to the revelation of the Trinity. It is interesting to note that though the story begins with the mention of three men, actually Abraham speaks to ‘them’ as if to the one Lord God – Yahweh. In the course of the story the number also changes again from the plural to the singular. In any case, the reference of the icon to the story of Abraham welcoming Yahweh, reminds us that our belief in the Trinity is about hospitality which calls for faith and personal sacrifice.
The second aspect to focus on in the icon is that the three figures are enclosed within a perfect circle, the centre of the circle falls where the two fingers of the central figure lay on the table. Representation of the Trinity in a circle, rather than as a triangle or the leaf of the shamrock, is very interesting. The unbroken band of a ring, without beginning or end, is the perfect symbol of the love that exists between the persons of the Trinity. In a sense, we ourselves cannot grasp the mystery of the Trinity without entering into that circle of love.
Among the three figures, our attention first falls on the figure on the right of the icon – the Holy Spirit – dressed in blue and green: the symbols of water and vegetation – the symbols of life. The inclining posture of the Holy Spirit moves our attention to the two others in the icon. That is the action of the Spirit: He directs us and draws us to the Father and the Son in a dynamic yet graceful movement.
The second figure, seated in the middle, dominates the centre of the icon. His voluminous robes – covered in royal blue – gives Him an irresistible prominence among the figures. The second person of the Trinity has His two fingers at the centre of the circle suggesting the two natures of Christ, the divine and the human. Yes, without incarnation there would be no human knowledge of the Trinity. The two fingers might also suggest the two roles of the Messiah: the priest and the king. Yet, despite his majestic posture the glance of the Son are so tenderly and intimately focussed on the Father. Christ the king is our mediator and the way to the Father.
The Father is seated in a receptive, welcoming posture, as if accepting the attention of the other two persons. However, the father is not cast in the role of an authoritative figure but as an anxious Father who waits and longs for our home coming. One cannot avoid being reminded of the father in the story of the prodigal son (Lk 15:20).
At the foreground of the picture, there is an empty stool. A space that is ready to be filled. Now if you had a second look at the three persons, you might notice that somehow the three persons are also expectantly looking at that empty space. The more one sits meditatively before the icon the more one feels attracted to occupy that empty place at table and be part of the communion of and with God. This then is the depth of the mystery that we contemplate today: God, who is a communion of three persons, invites me to be part of that communion. Am I ready to take that seat? Am I ready to trust the God whose gentle and understanding agency stands against the forces of self-destruction?
Now is as good a time as any to realize these things.