Sermon for Easter 6 2019
26th May 2019
Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter Year C
“Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up”. John 5.7
The Easter Sundays remind us that the Resurrection of Jesus was not an isolated event, stranded in time. When Jesus rose from the tomb, a dam had burst. Out of that dam flowed the love of God in the outpouring of resurrection grace. It flowed into the life of the world for its own revival and for the re-shaping of its destiny.
On each of these successive Easter Sundays our Gospel readings have allowed us to share in the Resurrection and to recall its significance for the reinstatement and the transformation of human lives. We have been sharing the resurrection with those who were the first witnesses. We have been recalling ‘doubting’ Thomas and the finger entering the wound at the side of Christ, and have been sharing breakfast with Him as we recognise the Christ in our midst. We have understood the Easter message as a renewal of our hopes and intentions and as the proclamation of a renewed and transformed ‘divine society’. Easter has surely come to us in the continued outpouring of grace in the life and death and resurrection of Christ, expressed beautifully and succinctly in the conclusion of the Angelus prayer:
Pour forth, we beseech thee, O Lord,
thy Grace into our hearts;
that as we have known the incarnation of Christ
thy Son by the message of an angel,
so by His cross and passion
we may be brought to the glory of His Resurrection.
Through the same Christ, our Lord.
I want you to see that pouring forth not like trickling water, out of a jug, but as a powerful ‘pouring forth’ which has (finally) escaped from the massive unyielding, age old dam as the roaring of mighty waters possessed of phenomenal baptismal energy. We catch a glimpse of these things in the Revelation of John:
Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.
To compliment this powerful theological symbolism this morning’s Gospel reading replies in different kind. In St John’s Gospel, we witness in the intense quiet of a Jerusalem portico the terrible staying power of a crippled old man who has for thirty-eight years been waiting for his healing. We have a vivid description of this patient man waiting beside a small water spring, the pool of Bethesda; the ‘house of mercy’. There he waits for the deliverance which has never come. He is never able to get to the water when it springs up. He signifies the type of person who finds themselves waiting on the fact of life as unreconciled; waiting for a healing or a resolution that never seems to come, grappling with questions which remain unanswered and of past conflict which never remains unresolved, waiting in pain. We know that in Deuteronomy 2.14 his thirty-eight years corresponds to the fruitless wandering in the desert of the people of Israel. The old man has spent years and years with his own incapacity as a kind of living doom. And perhaps he is resigned and perhaps he is apathetic or hopeful; we don’t know...
The stirring of the waters comes to us as a quintessential Easter figure. It beckons us toward the healing grace which God is offering us in His Son. Jesus is identified as the same living water which feeds the tree of life in The Revelation of John. In this way we speak about the healing of the ‘whole’ person, the person in their complete humanity, the struggle with a life which perhaps feels only too real and yet in another sense, an exile. Scripture speaks to us today of the healing waters of God's grace which flows over and into this crevice.
The call to believe in Jesus is the one which advances the desire we have, whether we realise it or not, for the healing of our lives at their deepest level, and for that reconciliation with God which is our life’s true purpose. We are not as Christians to be either stoic or casual about these things. The resurrection is God’s promise for our healing. It stands for the inflowing of the divine gift, given to us now as a summons to faith in Him in response to his question 'Do you wish to be healed?' And we are to respond, as best we can, open-heartedly:
Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.
Charing Cross Hospital in Hammersmith was built in the early 1980s and the planners and architect provided generously for what they called a ‘Chaplaincy Suite’. In my time as chaplain, it was situated between the hydrotherapy pool and the genito-urinary clinic: the modern day equivalent of the Pool of Bethesda. It is a pleasing situation because placed where it is both set apart and yet also very accessible, on the ground floor. But it is also pleasing for the quality of the natural light, and for two great works of art, each of them modern stain glass windows, which stand in the sanctuary of the round chapel. The windows were designed and made by John Piper, and renowned for the directness of their viewpoint and for the amazing depth of their colours. The two windows are named ‘The Waters of Life’ and ‘The Tree of Life’. They are there in that light-filled chapel. They are there to speak to the distressed or quietened patient, or to the one who says in their prayer of pain “Sir, Jesus, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up”. I feel helpless now. I am in a desert. From where is my life to come now?
The windows stand as a vivid reminder of the source of life and the means of Resurrection grace. In the setting of a busy hospital, they offer a vision for the healing of the person alongside the usual forms of medical care and yet pointing to the source of healing lying beyond them.
The Easter message repeats itself and this is the refrain :
That in all that makes life intractable, difficult and painful, and for all those things which demand our patient waiting,
Jesus comes to meet us as for our healing just as he came to meet the man at the pool of Bethesda.
Unfathomed love divine
Reign thou within my heart;
From thee nor depth nor height,
Nor life nor death can part;
Our life is hid with God in thee,
Now and through all eternity.
Sermon for Easter 5 2019
19th May 2019
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 comes for the to allow for a distinctly Christian practice based on mutual love rather than a religion of law 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’ or in and of itself, good. The old religion had separated 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.
The witness to Jesus Christ in God is not to be sectarian. 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 prospects. But the importance for Peter and for the emerging Christian community is that it begins to question and re-examine itself in the light of its Jewish past and in its experience 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 and made manifest in the visit to the believers in Joppa as a message of salvation:
“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 society is one of radical inclusiveness, where all who have come to God, of whatever kind, are incorporated.
The message of all our three readings this morning is the message of new life. John’s revelation is one of ‘new heavens and a new earth’, John the Gospeller speaks of the glorified Christ, and it is this glory which is the transforming agent.
“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.
The 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 an 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 undergoes change and development, not for its own sake, but in the light of the ancient faith and witness to the Resurrection joy. If we experience that joy which is Christ risen from the dead, how do we best become a church which is bold and imaginative in establishing new understandings, new partnerships and new ways of becoming more of a joyful and effective Christian presence in King’s Cross? To work for a church which is a living rather than a merely existing presence?
Two stories that happened to me in the past year, both relating to food outlets. The first the French boulangerie Aux Pains de Papi in the Grays Inn Road, which started life in Provence. The entirely French staff 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 some 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, are now being offered what the reviewers call ‘The best croissants this side of Paris’! The other 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. In such ways 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 has the vision and the courage to achieve these things in ordinary lives and maybe ordinary ways, but which is in fact and in deed proves transformative:
And let us not be complacent in these things. 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 Easter 4 2019
12th May 2019
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, the 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 then 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 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 the life of those who bear witness to his Son. This is the 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 sprung to the London Diocese’s statement for mission up and including the year 2020. It’s called simply ‘Capital Vision’ which sees our churches growing in confidence, compassion and the third ‘c’, creativity over the next few years, in which it is hoped that 10,000 new ambassadors for Christ will be emerge and in which 100 new Christian communities will be 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 here 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 crucified 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 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:
“I give them eternal life and they will never perish”.
Sermon for Easter 3 2019
5th May 2019
The Third Sunday of Easter 2019
“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.
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.
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 and the cock crew... 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, responsible for the growth of the early Christian movement to unimaginable proportions.
This outcome came 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 persons just as they are found, even and especially when those lives feel wrecked and lost. 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 suffered spiritual death from its own small mindedness and become irrelevant. 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 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 real thing? 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 real 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)
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...