Christ the King
25th Nov 2012
Sermon for the Feast of Christ the King.
"My Kingdom is not of this world" John 18.36.
Today’s Feast of Christ the Universal King always occurs on this the last Sunday of the Church’s Year. It provides a powerful reminder of the kind of authority which is known in Christ. By placing his divine authority alongside what we understand to be kingly powers, we learn of a kingship which reverses the accepted notion of grandeur and deference and distance. This kingship is one which is spelt out in this morning’s Gospel. It is one which expresses in the being of Christ a real active, disinterested and unselfish love. It is one which increasingly runs counter to the culture where human acquisitiveness and the cult of self is predominant. It calls forth resources of human generosity above the interests of acquisition or self-will : The Christian Gospel proclaims an ethic of care and disinterested love while at the same time directing our minds and hearts to the source of it all which is Jesus Christ. It is before all else an embodied Gospel. And it is for this that Jesus was born. As we love the other so we love Christ himself and Christ as God. This is not dictatorial. It invitates us into close relationship with the Saviour and with our fellow men and women. This became recognisable in Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who even though experiencing as we now know, dark and difficult periods of emptiness, nonetheless articulated her care for the poor always in terms of the realisation in their faces, their lives and even in their diseases, the person and being of Christ himself. Christ’s is a kingship whose reign has been borne out of the Cross. It is a sovereign gift which is always to be given, poured out, even and perhaps especially when the cost of that giving is great.
Jesus reigns from the cross as a King. 'For what,' Pope St. Leo the Great asks, 'could be more royal than a soul which by subjecting itself to God becomes ruler of its own body?'
A man crucified, who says, 'Father forgive them'; an executed criminal who can promise heaven to a thief. This is a man who is a ruler, a man in charge of himself, ruling from the cross. So Jesus is king, whether the crowd approves or not.
We have a king who hopes we will follow him and so follow His teaching, but Christ the King never coerces us. It is always the paradox of true love. This love will wait, it will hope, it will never dictate, it will never intervene, it will always allow for free choice. This is unlike President Assad of Syria who has often said that only violence can restore order. It is for this, his own order that he is prepared to kill his own people.
When Jesus laid aside His garments to wash the disciples feet John 13.4 . He was symbolically laying aside his external outer layer of personality which had covered his inner being. Only when this happens can transformation take place. It is the shedding of those things no longer needed. Our outer actions transform us for good or evil, but will come from decisions made within our own hearts. This King we follow shows us that we are not to tread down or doubt or do violence to the good that is in us, so that his transforming love might be enabled in us. Jesus reminds us that God's influence on us all is an influence that will in the life a tested and tried faith, prevail.
On 7th February in the year 1649, following the execution by beheading of Charles I, the office of King in this country was abolished once and for all. But only 11 years later his son King Charles II, was restored with much fanfare, and shortly afterwards Charles I was canonised by the Church in England as a saint, something before and since unheard of. There are two churches in my home town, Plymouth, a staunch follower of Oliver Cromwell, named after the beheaded Charles I after the Restoration of the monarchy. One is simply called ‘Charles Church’ which was gutted during the Second World War and now forms the centre-piece of a roundabout in the city centre. Monarchy in human history has suffered mixed fortunes and has been unpredictable. The gloves Charles I wore on the day of his execution can be seen at Lambeth Library and are a poignant reminder of his demise. Now monarchies are thinly spread and often associated with the condition of exile rather than rule. In this country The Queen’s role as head of the nation is important for the social and cultural functions it fulfils. It is a long distance away from Charles I’s insistence on ruling by divine right.
The Queen’s role includes (as the Royal Website puts it) : “…providing a focus for national identity, unity and pride; giving a sense of stability and continuity; recognising success, achievement and excellence; and supporting service to others, particularly through public service and the voluntary sector. All is now drawn in broad brush strokes. It appears less as a function of power and yet positively as one of symbolic and actual significance and very much as a complimentary and stabilising presence in our nation to the politicians, the great and the good and the powers that be…But nonetheless its existence remains inseparable from the existence of God and at her coronation the Queen was solemnly anointed to bear her role of service in a rite very akin to the rite of ordination. So solemn, in fact was this rite, that in 1953 it was hidden from cameras and the public in Westminster Abbey. It was holy. Covered by a golden canopy. Its significance renders for the British monarch a meaning far beyond the limits of the modern job description. Its significance, as for the Christ the King, allows us to see that real earthly authority, the one that really influences, combines real human presence with the call to holiness from which it is nourished. Consecration carries and brings forth the means of dedication and enables its fruits to last in honest duty. We are left in no doubt in this morning's Gospel that this consecration is a consecration in and with and through the person of Jesus Christ.
And so in many ways we understand the Kingship of Christ as one that is a Kingship both of this world, and importantly beyond it. It is one which receives its proclamation and anointing from the place of his own offering and his own kingdom teaching. This teaching and instruction, coming from the wisdom of the cross, is the one which offers to posterity the highest ethical standard for the Christian Church. It is one which is rooted in active and disinterested love. Only in this way can the Kingship of Christ be deemed credible. ‘As you did it to the least of these my brethren you did it to me’, says the wise and gentle ruler. Christ the King rules through vulnerability, His own and ours. This is the King whose outstretched arms embrace His death as he embraces us in ours. This is the king who longs to be with us in every aspect of our lives, but allows us not to invite Him into our lives. This is the king who never gives up on us. This is the great and marvellous message at the end of the Church’s year and the Gospel’s final flourish before we turn again and wait for his coming in Advent.
Almighty and eternal God,
you have made of one blood all the nations of the earth
and will that they live together
in peace and harmony;
so order the course of this world
that all peoples may be brought together
under Christ's just and gentle rule;
through Jesus Christ our Lord
who is alive and remains with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Entering the Sanctuary
18th Nov 2012
The Second Sunday before Advent
“We have confidence to enter the sanctuary through the blood of Jesus” Hebrews 10.19
Our cathedrals are really small miracles written in stone. They speak to us of the faith of those who built them and of the lives of countless thousands of Christians who have offered their longings and prayers in the worship of God over the centuries. And what stories they could tell! These sacred buildings have a powerful life of their own. In Salisbury Cathedral it is as if the stone melts away and a kind of glorious vision takes its place. It is as if the stones were not hard or impermeable but living stones which over time have absorbed so much life and have become saturated with the Godly presence that they emit a power of their own. The stones also achieve a grace and a beauty which is awesome. It makes you want to sing the Sanctus:
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts
Heaven and earth are full of thy glory
Glory be to thee, O God most high!
When we express ourselves like this we are responding to the numinous, which the dictionary tells us is ‘…spiritual, revealing or indicating the presence of divinity, awe-inspiring’. And yet this cannot be for the Christian all that there is. Another dimension is present. It lies in the response of Christian faith which is more than contemplation. These buildings speak to us in the present as they spoke to many others in the present. The God who inhabits these places is the God who lives with us and who inhabits our lives both within and beyond the place of worship. The glory which is experienced within the building is to be ‘taken out’ and shown in the way we live our lives outside of it. “May we live and work to your praise and glory” we say as we are dismissed from the Mass.
This morning’s Gospel reading has a disciple praising the Temple building and its beautiful stones. Jesus’ response is delivered bluntly in the prediction of its coming demolition. Some forty years after this prediction the Temple was indeed destroyed by the Romans, putting down Jewish insurrection. The Jewish temple was never to be rebuilt. Today all that is left of that old temple is the great wall we call the Wailing Wall. It is a wall of lament for the lost temple and it is a wall that divides the Jewish from the Muslim holy place in Jerusalem. Little slips of paper containing Jewish prayers are placed into cracks in the wall. The wall has lost its grand purpose of holding up a great temple and is now a place of sighs.
We need to remind ourselves that the gospels recount a Jesus who speaks and preaches in doorways, in houses, at the meal table, in a boat on the lake. His relationship to grand buildings like the temple is ambivalent. Last week I visited Seville Cathedral, the third largest church building in the world. Such buildings were designed to overwhelm and to make you know your own size and your own place in the order of things. At the same time they are expressions of the divine inhabitation which can be both lofty and immense and intimate and touching. The cathedrals are a visible reminder of the historical development of the Christian Church over the centuries and of an architectural expression that takes us way beyond the confines and the horizons that existed around the Sea of Galilee. But the purpose of the Gospels is nonetheless to bid us return to Christian basics. In this particular gospel reading lies the message that The Christian Faith is never contained in buildings alone. There will always remain the challenge which Jesus calls from us this morning, the same challenge that was laid down in the Wisdom of Solomon:
“…Will God indeed reside with mortals on earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built!”
2 Chronicles 6.18
In predicting the fall of the Temple, Jesus is standing before us as the living embodiment of what became known as The Christian Church and of Christianity. In the early, formative centuries of Christianity, buildings were not dominant. It was only with the Conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity that Christian buildings, taking on high status became grand and dominant. Jesus would have known nothing of this in his own time. The prediction of the fall of the Temple is also a prediction ahead of this Advent season in which a proper judgement of the Church is evident and in which we are reminded of the spiritual dynamism of a Church that exists without walls and doors, which is not shut up but open to all who would come and receive Christ. This is an open church whose glories within, the glories received in church are to be turned inside out, so that such glory is shown and found in many other inhabitations beyond the place of official sanctuary.
This is an important reminder. Jesus is allows us to see that there is a link between the church building and the life of the people. Our church’s history here at Holy Cross is a vital and important one. It traces a very important story of witness to Christ in this part of London over almost 125 years. The Church itself and its arrangement of light and of sense which is most attractive to those to come here and find a place of sanctuary. But in the final analysis Jesus, both in his person and in his teaching bids us to draw from that sense of sanctuary, and do what we are bidden to do as we leave this place:
To live and work (O Lord), to thy praise and glory.
11th Nov 2012
So we shall stay with the Lord for ever. Thessalonians 4.18
My home town of Plymouth was a war ravaged or blitzed place and I spent my early childhood playing on bomb sites. This was before the era of health and safety, and we would cheerfully stumble across the rubble and twisted metal, broken bricks and glass and build dens in old cellars. I well remember you could see the sides of houses blown away and catch sight of wallpapered rooms, their insides turned eerily outside. It was only gradually that I came to realise that a generation before, all was death and devastation, and I caught glimpses and experiences of it from my father, even though he rarely expressed them verbally. The bomb sites were scars on the landscape providing an outward manifestation of the inner human scars that the war had left behind.
I once felt sure that as the years passed this Day of Remembrance for the War Dead would spend itself with the deaths of the combatants of the Two World Wars. But this has not been the case. This Sunday strikes a chord in the human heart. Remembrance Sunday is much more than the sum total of the observances that take place. It occupies a sea of human experience which spans life and death and the life beyond. It brings us in touch, with the brutality and the futility of war and yet at the same time with the dignity and the eternal worth of human being and human sacrifice. And the promise is there of the God whose presence, even amidst the horrors of suffering, is seen in the many acts of self-giving.
These are of course Christian figures of speech – the reaching out beyond the life here to the life beyond, and the transformation of the human condition in a life which gives of itself to the other. But in a simple way it is the valuation of every human life. Yes, in the many war memorials across the world with the giant stones and the seemingly endless rows of names, each name has been a whole life, a life of hopes and dreams and cares and joys and pains. And as the poppy petals fall down into the Albert Hall each year at the Festival of Remembrance each petal represents one whole life lost. Each one counts; each one was significant; each made present in the falling of those red petals.
Always God’s initiative is manifested in the living world and among us now. And in a world in which war and the waging of war remains a reality we ask ourselves as Christians how we are to understand this Remembrance Sunday in relation to our life in the early twenty first century? We commemorate this Sunday only days after the Christian World commemorates All Souls, for others the Day of the Dead. Days too after remembering the lives and deaths of the saints. In London the dead leaves fall to the ground and crunch underfoot as nature accompanies the hallowing of the dead.
The way forward for us the living ones is through a proper honouring of the human condition as it is found, and a patient preparedness to sacrifice our own selves for the good of the greater whole. The Christian Gospel and the teaching of Christ is before all else a summons to attend to these things in a kind of spiritual watchfulness. Deadness is there in the life which has withdrawn into itself and which takes no risks and avoids having any demands made upon it. Life it is which is held for us in Jesus Christ. The life of Jesus has shown that victory over the powers of death is won through the laying down of our lives; in many, perhaps little, ways. Sometimes what seem to be intolerably large amounts of self-sacrifice have to be given for the sake of the good, and for the peace of the world. The sacrifice of the many in the past leads us on to a powerful and moving and effective understanding of the power of human self-sacrifice in every age. Jesus is our guide in all these things. He mediates the love of the Father and holds out the promise of renewal of life.
My upbringing in a ravaged and rebuilt city has always reminded me of the life that may come out of death, and the way in which the death and resurrection of Christ tells us what we know about the right kind of hope for troubled lives. In the porch of Plymouth’s civic church, St Andrew’s, which was bombed almost to the ground during the blitz, is a large sign which was once placed over the ruin. It reads simply, ‘Resurgam’ 'I will rise again'. This is the message for Remembrance Sunday, taking us in two directions – in the embrace of past remembrances and in the sure hope of the life to come. In this way we are being assured by St Paul that ’we shall stay with the Lord for ever’.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
John McCrae (1872-1918)
A Sermon for All Saints
4th Nov 2012
A Sermon for All Saints
Isaiah 25.6-9; Psalm 24.1-6; Revelation 21.1-6a, John 11.32-44.
The Feast of All Saints is one of the most important of the Church’s year. It is what is called a ‘moveable’ feast, and can be ‘moved’ to the nearest Sunday, where it can be given its due significance.
The other day I was staying in the Cathedral Close in Salisbury, from where you can see the tallest spire in England. The Cathedral is a stunning sight, and walking around the west front, you see before you hundreds of saints, each contained within their own apse, and all looking vaguely alike. And perhaps this is the image we have of the saints, mostly bearded men, gazing down at us from their isolated places and lost in time.But the facts of the matter are otherwise.
Today’s Gospel reading of the raising of Lazarus seems at first a strange reading for All Saints Day but this feast is, after all, about the powerful commixture of life and death and resurrection contained within John’s narrative. It is a new kind of identity that John celebrates, echoing the words of St Paul, “For me to live is Christ and to die gain”. (Philippians 1.21) The emergence of Lazarus from the tomb, still dressed as a corpse, is one of the most startling occurrences in the New Testament. It speaks vividly of there being something new at work in the ministry of Christ. It speaks above all of the promise of the resurrection of the dead. The French word for resurrection is resussité, literally ‘resuscitation’. Death is not only for the Christian a biological certainty, it is also a summons to new life in Christ. Christians speak of dying to self as a way out of the self-centred, tomb-like existence which is the burial of our gifts and our love. He calls to you and to me as he did to Lazarus ‘Come out of this place of death; allow the power of Christ to resuscitate you, to breathe new life into you. Die to live! John Donne, a former Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, likened his spiritual life to the battering of an Autumn tree. The Christian life involved a necessary life and death struggle:
Batter my heart, three person’d God; for you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
The crucifixion and death and resurrection of Christ is the once and for all, final summons to attain to what St Paul called ‘”The measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4.13), and this is where the saints come to help us. They provide markers or directions for us. They remind us that the Christian Faith belongs neither to a ‘goodness religion’ nor to a religion for super humans. Sanctity issues out of lives which have been marked by doubt, disillusion, suffering and struggle. The saints remind us that the Christian journey is real and loaded with possibility. They are not ‘plaster’ saints but real human beings. They remind us of lives lived a very real, difficult world. In the film “Nixon”, Anthony Hopkins plays the former president as a tortured and ruthless power maniac. In one scene, Nixon gazes up at a painting of John F Kennedy. He speaks to the painting thus “When people look at you they see themselves as they want to be, when they look at me they see themselves as they are”. Perhaps our working definition of a saint must combine both these observations?
The idea of the saint came from a tradition of venerating the mortal remains of Christians who had left their mark on the memory of the Christian community. The first of these were the early Christian martyrs who died in Rome, including St Peter and St Paul. Once churches were built they were called after saints names, and in Cornwall there are names like St Ennodock and St Neot who are known to us only in legend. The most famous English saint, Thomas à Becket was made a saint only four years after his death. RS Thomas the poet reminds us as he looks upon his old church in remote West Wales that ‘the parish has a saint’s name that time cannot unfrock’.
The saints remind us that the Christian Faith may not be an easy faith to live out but it is an essentially human way and not a conveyor belt for the turning out of plaster saints. Do not believe the certain kind of Christianity that makes faith seem guaranteed and easy; it is not. I do not find being Christian easy at all. The Church teaches, however, that we are here not for short-term spiritual gain but for the long haul, in faith terms ‘till death us do part’. Christian witness is about the sanctification, the blessing of lives that seek God by what someone has called ‘the absurdity of faith’ that exists alongside life’s vagaries. This is the kind of faith that came to St Augustine as the guilt over the enforced separation after 16 years from the partner he never married and the later death of their sixteen year old son. This is also the absurd faith of St Teresa of Avila, who on inspecting a room offered to her as a chapel declared that it was not big enough, and took a sledgehammer and smashed down the wall only to reveal the startled neighbours next door. You didn’t argue with Teresa; a woman who had survived the Spanish Inquisition would not have been a pushover under any circumstances.
St Benedict wrote a rule for the community we call the Benedictines and it has long been valued as a Christian model for its understanding of human limitations and its love of unity in the Christian fellowship. Nonetheless his basic rulings on human behaviour are forthright:
Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way: the love of Christ must come before all else. You are not to act in anger or nurse a grudge. Rid your heart of deceit. Never give a hollow greeting of peace or turn away when someone needs your love.
The saints are human, just like us. The call to Christian sanctity is the call to live lives which are generous and loving and which reveal the Christian Faith to be transformative of the human condition. It can be seen and known in our actions. Of course talking of sainthood and sanctity is always difficult. Perhaps, however there have been people that you have known who have revealed in their lives something of that holiness and purposefulness and selflessness which are the signs of a sanctified life. Or perhaps you yourself have found sanctification in the love of another, or in an experience of God’s love in a place or a community, like this church.
I never enter this building without feeling a sense of awe. I always feel my heart miss a beat. This is a place, a sanctified space, where I have, maybe like you, found and re-found a sense of belonging in the love of God, and that Lazarus sense of being spiritually resuscitated. At the heart of all we do and all we are to become in the life of God is that prayer which is a witness to the holiness of God and his Church.
It is a prayer for the sanctification of our own lives, too:
Holy, Holy, Holy is our Lord God,
Who was, and is and is to come!
A Sermon for All Souls
2nd Nov 2012
The Commemoration of All Souls
“Praying for one’s departed loved ones is a far too immediate urge to be suppressed. It is a most beautiful manifestation of solidarity, love and assistance, reaching beyond the barrier of death”. Pope Benedict XVI.
At this particular time of the year in the first days of November, the Church seems to wrap itself in the lives of those who have gone before us: On the 1st November in the lives of all the saints, which we celebrated last Sunday. Then as the days in November wear on, we come to that moment on the 11th hour of the 11th month as Armistice Day is observed. And then there comes Remembrance Sunday and the wearing of poppies… Today’s All Soul’s Day is the Church’s Day of the Dead, and forms an inseparable apart of the general commemorating and remembering of the dead. And its purpose is to keep us in mind of what we know as Christians already. That there is a fine veil that separates life from death. Similarly, there is a fine veil that separates us from those who have gone before us, and especially those whose lives we came in the past to know and to love. They are a part of us and their influence upon us in the present and for all time.
For the Christian, life is of God’s making and it is sacred. And all is vital for our understanding of who God is. As God’s creatures we stand in awe of the grandeur and the mystery of what he has made and how he has made it. The true meaning of life lies beyond mere speech. No wonder, then, that the appropriate response in the remembrance of the dead is one of silence. The Two Minute’s Silence speaks to us clearly in this busy world more than ever in ways words never could. In the silence is communicated that place where the living and the dead hold communion. Yet another tradition in the remembering of the dead is the writing down or the reading out of the names of the dead. We may imagine the war memorials, with their thousands of names, the books of commemoration and condolence, as well as the engravings for those known and unknown on countless memorial stones. And at his All Souls Mass, the long list of the names of the dead, known by you and I both individually and severally is solemnly read out. It is stands both as a list of the dead and a declaration of our faith in the one who has risen from the Dead – Our Lord Jesus Christ.
In his great poem ‘The Wasteland’ TS Eliot, recovering from a nervous breakdown, describing a crowd of commuters crossing over Westminster Bridge in the year 1921:
He observed them; a people recovering from The Great War and most of them suffering the deaths of their men folk: sons, brothers, fathers, uncles, cousins. And the feeling is one of great sorrow and loss. And this is a sorrow that Eliot describes as a kind of ‘undoing’. “I had not thought that death had undone so many” he says. Death and the brevity of life and the loss of a loved can feel like we are being unravelled.
Another poet, Dylan Thomas writes a poem which is an elegy for his dead father and bids us ‘rage,rage aginst the dying of the light’.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
It expresses a passionate anger that must form a part of the sense of impotent rage at a life gone from his midst, and the terrible loss of it. This too, forms a part of the human experience of death.
This Solemn Commemoration of All Souls on this day each year, 2nd November is, as the Pope has said, “…a beautiful manifestation of solidarity, love and assistance, reaching beyond the barrier of death’. However faint our powers of recollection, we nevertheless feel in our own lives the influences of those who have gone before us. We feel there is more here than words can express, even for an Eliot or a Dylan Thomas. “What will survive of us” said WH Auden “…is love”.
At this time each year we remember the dead in faith and in thanksgiving. And we pray that as we journey on, so we may be sustained and maintained in hope by the One who made us and loves us as Christian souls. He is The One who came to show us the way through death and into life eternal, even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.