Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter (Ascension)
24th May 2020
Ascension Day Sermon 2020
“The glory of God is the living Man; the life of Man is the Vision of God”.
Archbishop Michael Ramsey.
After the six Sundays of Easter, in which we have encountered the risen Lord with the disciples in so many ways, our observance of this Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord takes us in another direction. Actually, it takes us to another dimension – heavenward. And for The Church this heavenly dimension is a quite natural way of regarding the life of God the Creator in relation to us his creatures. This dimension is expressed most fully in John’s Gospel where Jesus’ life is the one which has come from God and goes back to God. And again for the Church, to speak of Christ is to speak of the holiness and the glory of that freedom of movement he has brought about between the heavenly and the earthly places. We have, over past weeks witnessed the trial, suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. In the weeks following Easter we have witnessed the Christ who comes to the disciples to reassure them and point their lives and their faltering faith every forward. He provides hope in the present and the promise of glory for the future. He promises the gift of the Holy Spirit. And now he goes back to the Father as he ascends into heaven. One of the Psalms express this poetically and joyfully – (Psalm 19.1-4):
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun…
In this meeting and mixing of the heavenly and the earthly there is the hope that is held out for us in Christ. Why is a belief in heaven so much a part of Christian Faith? How are we to believe in heaven in a way that is not as has been said cynically “pie in the sky when you die”? To speak of the Ascension of Jesus is to speak of the glory which emerges out of his own self offering, which is one of humility and self-giving, even unto death. It is best expressed in the 1662 Prayer Book’s Eucharistic Rite:
O God our Heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption, who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world, and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of that his precious death, until his coming again…
We are reminded in Ephesians 4.6 that Jesus “ascended on high and led captivity captive”. And we, who are on this earth as captive exiles, are also as Christians those who follow where Jesus Christ has gone before. And we are promised that what emerges out of the pattern of his and our struggle and in his life is the glory which is the hope of heaven to come. Like him we come from God and go back to God. Christianity is above all else a hopeful and heaven directed faith. Our living out of this life in the pattern and likeness of Christ is a kind of suffering unto self, but again, after the pattern of Christ’s own being, the promise made to us is to the glory which is yet to be revealed to us:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. Romans 8:18.
Archbishop Michael Ramsey was one who constantly proclaimed the Christian glory in terms of the life of Man to its fullest potential. He wishes that these words, from Irenaeus, a Second Century Theologian and Saint be placed on his gravestone:
The glory of God is the living Man; the life of Man is the Vision of God.
Some time ago I was in Salisbury Cathedral. It is perhaps the finest example of a complete Medieval Gothic Cathedral that we have, with its spire rising to over 400’ the tallest spire in England, and the inside the vaulting which carries you mind and heart heavenward. Heavenward not just because the vaults are high and beautiful but because they speak to the heart and the souI. The architecture is spiritual architecture. It is uplifting. I attended Evensong there at which Psalm 18 was sung “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” and I began to see the cathedral around me in a new light and even a new dimension. It was no longer just a glorious great church building but a piece of living sculpture, full of space and light, and arches and shapes which took the eye in this or that direction. And then, too, the music and the choir themselves declared further this glory of which the psalmist wrote and of the many ways in which the Glory of God may be expressed in the lives of us all. The glory of God lies all around us and the Christian is the one who has open eyes to express this same glory in all we are and in all we do for God’s sake…
And this is where we come down from heaven and into this earth. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ, his coming to birth as both Man and Son of God is one complete action. It is one which gifts the glory of God to each one of us in our own lives. It is the promise of his presence and of the potential in our own existences in the promise of glory gifted to us by the One Lord Jesus Christ who has ascended to that place where God is. This is the place where we are headed, too, and there is glory in that, too.
As we give our lives more fully to God, and as we dedicate ourselves in the service of Christ, let us then declare not only in our lips but with our hearts:
“The glory of God is the living Man; the life of Man is the Vision of God”.
Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter
17th May 2020
Sermon for Easter 6 Year A 2020
“You know God, because he abides with you and he will be in you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.” John 14.16-18.
Today is the final Sunday of Easter. Next Sunday as we observe the Ascension of Jesus into heaven the Church arrives at a theological ‘bend in the road’. We observe the contrast between the immediacy of the resurrection appearances and their thrilling communication of God’s love with a distinct point of departure, a wrench. In Christ’s ‘going back to the Father’ as John puts it, a new kind of matured faith is being demanded. There is now the need for the followers to grow in grace and to receive what Jesus calls ‘another advocate’ The Holy Spirit, which will inform, refresh and guide their future lives as they brace themselves for a ‘brave new world’.
The resurrection of Christ draws all who believe in Him to the immediacy of the present time. It is in the immediate present that the Christian Faith is to be worked out. In this it is to be expected that we may experience discouragement and doubt. And when this happens, it is all too human at times of spiritual crisis to ‘bottle out’; to resign; to long for a quick way out of the crisis and to decry the present with all its many frustrations. This was after all, the experience of the Exodus for God’s chosen people. Life on the move, life with poor food, life which provided little or no immediate comfort, life not knowing where and when and if it would all end. Their frustration led them to blame poor Moses, and through him, to blame God.
In our first reading, the tendency to blame and the temptation to withdraw into angry silence is gently challenged as St Luke reminds us in Acts that ‘In God we live and move and have our being’, and that though we struggle to understand where God’s will may lie in the midst of present trouble, nonetheless it is certain that ‘he is not far from each one of us’. As the poet Tennyson urges us,
Speak to Him, thou, for He hears, and Spirit with Spirit can meet –
Closer is He than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet.
Many have struggled to come to terms with a Church which has closed its doors in this Coronavirus period. Set against the proper instruction of the state against reckless journeys and the risk they pose to the NHS front line and an increase in the ‘R’ number comes a strong reaction. Many within the Church feel that this looks like a dereliction of Christian duty. A country full of locked churches is of course a sad sight. Those who decry this go on to say that churches meeting online have backed away from their duty to meet others at the greatest point of need and the legacy this might leave is a sad one. On the other hand I would say that this is not a time when our own church has been in dereliction of its duty to serve others. We are putting in place funding for those most vulnerable in our own local community in support of existing services which are currently delivering groceries and running errands. We are ensuring that vulnerable members of our own congregation have their needs met through visiting, telephone calling and liaising with the social services. We are sustaining a new pattern of Christian worship which we hope continues to strengthen us in this time of great challenge. I have been doing a lot of ‘phoning around this week and it is apparent that we are entering a phase in which the pressure of recent events is being felt more profoundly. There is real distress, which is only to be expected. And this is heeded. But there is also a great deal of good old British good cheer and a strong resolution and a desire to see this thing through as best we can. We have identified Sunday July 5th as the day of going back to our church building and we will work creatively toward that longed for goal.
Complainants often have a good case to offer, as they did in Moses’ day, but it was certain then as now that they were not privileged to see the bigger picture or accept the proper constraints which were being demanded of them for the sake of the greater good. God is bigger than our west door, whether open or shut! The need to accept and live with difficult realities is so often a necessary part of life. We mature when we live with not always getting what we want. The Exodus was a journey which did not promise an easy life or an assured sense of destiny, even though in retrospect the idea of the journeying to the promised land was momentous. But it had another, dimension as a journey which brought the exiles into a deeper sense of their destiny and of God’s provision along the way. It was their time of utmost faith. But this could only be acknowledged in retrospect.
The current Coronavirus realities do not offer the way to an easy ‘promised land’ but I feel sure that it is being worked out in the present and especially among those who are contributing so richly to our sense of confidence and hope. They are the ones who evidence the words we have been given this morning, the assuring words of Christ who has not left us merely to our own devices, but given us the promise of a God shaped future in which our intentions and purposes and his loving influence may form one real constant.
As Jesus reminds us in today’s gospel,
“You know God because he abides in you and he will be in you”.
“Because I live you also will live”
For in Him we live, and move and have our being.
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter
10th May 2020
EASTER 5 SERMON YEAR A 2020
It’s strange but true that at this time of Coronavirus the Church is being called upon to embrace the real contrast between lock down and resurrection. As we pass through the Sundays of Eastertide, each Sunday sets before us ever newer evidences for the Resurrection life. We discover along the way that the Resurrection of Jesus was not an isolated incident’. Rather it relates to all who have ever responded to Christ and to us too in the here and now.
St Paul reminds us in this morning’s letter to Peter that
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. 1 Peter 2.9
The resurrection confers a new kind of identity and new purpose. We give thanks those who have proclaimed the resurrection hope through their own commitment to the greater good. We have this past week celebrated the 75th anniversary of VE Day and in the Queen’s address to the nation she paid tribute to past human sacrifice whilst affirming the hopeful legacy that emerges out of it:
Many people laid down their lives in that terrible conflict.
They fought so we could live in peace, at home and abroad.
They died so we could live as free people in a world of free nations.
They risked all so our families and neighbourhoods could be safe.
These words are, like St Pauls words, profoundly life-affirming and inspirational. They are part of a deeper consciousness which commands our understanding of past sacrifice in the need for present courage. Much of the language of hope and assurance refers us back to times when, amidst great challenge, individuals and communities have remained steadfast and faithful. They have responded to the call to the ordinary life of ‘doing one’s job’ or ‘doing one’s duty’. As the WW2 caption says on so many biscuit tins and tea towels “Keep Going and Carry On”. That will remain true of all of us : that our best attempts to keep things going will make up the hope we need to ‘come through’ this time of great challenge. It is also a time which makes many demands upon us and may well one day find us changed for the better. The resurrection life will have worked itself out through the creative use of time and the reaching out in positive and joyful hope even while we are, so to speak, ‘shut in’. We will remain a community of prayer. The spiritual refreshment and perspective it offers is the sure antidote to stir craziness.
As with the populace at times of emergency, so too for individuals who have stood out at times of crisis to put new heart into the lives of the many. Captain Tom Moore was first seen by us barely a month ago as just another fundraiser for another charity - albeit his age and military background made his little walk particularly moving. But the raising of £32 million pounds for the NHS charities sector was no small matter. It revealed both the very old man who was simply ‘doing his ordinary thing’ alongside the fact of his inspiring and moving and cheering all of us as he approached his 100th birthday. Likewise, our NHS workers have come into their own in extraordinary ways. Boris Johnson’s two carers, Jenny McGee and Luis Pitarma saved the leader’s life and this provided us with a picture of the realities of life and death being waged on the front line. Through their care, the nation has witnessed the astonishing recovery from death of our PM, unprecedented in our history. The applause offered on Thursday evenings for our NHS workers is a moving and joyful tribute to their brave and sacrificial work. For Christians the resurrection is always about the transformation of ordinary human circumstances and the possibility that lies within each one of us for the renewal of hope and the emergence of new understanding. This time of apparent dislocation urges the appearance of a new social terrain with the strong need for the re-wiring of the old circuitry in the old way of doing things and the challenging of pre pandemic priorities.
This week, on Thursday we observe the 200 year anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, and as we remember her we might pause following all the great phrases which surround her career. And in pausing, we might thank God that she was not primarily a nurse but a statistician, and that she believed that the right use of statistics could give legislators and politicians the tools to transform situations where bad practice had resulted in unnecessary suffering and death. It is to the founder of modern nursing rather than as the ‘Lady of the Lamp’ that her true fame is due. She was the first to popularise the use of statistical ‘pie charts’ and the right use of statistics is going to play a large part in the future overseeing of our nation’s governance. It would be marvellous for some of us to applaud her this Thursday as we celebrate her birth in 1820.
Christians have a duty to invest their imaginative energy and active effort in the spiritual and practical support of the greater good. The Coronavirus pandemic has not found the churches asleep or hidden away but alive and active and supportive of the care of those who are particularly vulnerable. We are learning new ways to disseminate and share the word of God. There have been many who have come to church online and found the Christian lifeline and spiritual compass especially welcome in this time of uncertainty and dislocation.
For Christians, the resurrection hope provides the bridge which carries us across and through that which we would fear and dread even unto our own death. We traverse the bridge of faith in life as God’s resurrection people, spurred on by the life that has been set before us, even Jesus Christ our Lord whose example is our witness. Amen.
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter 2020
3rd May 2020
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter Year A
“I am the door of the sheepfold”. John10.4
It is an irony during this period of Coronavirus that though we are denied access toour church buildings we are nonetheless being welcomed into the domestic spaces of our congregation and then in the media of public figures in a way never before permitted. This represents an opening of doors normally closed to us. As Matt Hancock, our health secretary was this week holding forth on behalf of the nation I made an attempt to spot the titles of the bookshelves that lay behind him. Doors are used as a means of demarcation and even of exclusion, and yet where there are open doors there is also the possibility of welcome. A new way of doing church allows us greater informality and the ability to feel ourselves more keenly to be a company of the faithful. Denied my normal place in the great sanctuary of Holy Cross Church, I feel the joy of the immediacy and intimacy which our current online services now offer. Mention has already been made of the very early Christians who drew enormous strength and inspiration from such gatherings as ours.
In this morning’s Gospel, the identification with Jesus as ‘the door to the sheep fold’ beckons us into a singular and significant place. Jesus stands before us and it is he who offers us life. At the Ordination of new clergy to the Diocese of London, the Great West Doors of St Paul’s Cathedral given a rare opening for the candidates to enter in. At the beginning of an enthronement ceremony for a Bishop, the great door of the Cathedral is shut against him, and he must raise his shepherd’s crook and hammer it against the same door to gain entry…He must be seen and proven not to one of the pretenders mentioned in the Gospel, but one recognised as a spiritual leader and for whom the church’s welcome is a ready one.
Jesus is the one who both calls us and leads us into the household of faith. The door is the one which leads to the sheepfold and acts as its only conduit. We may have seen a herd of sheep pressed against a sheep door ready for dipping. The door is opened to let one in at a time. The door acts as a control to the means of entry into the fold. And in this simple descriptive way, John’s Gospel, a Gospel for the life of the emerging Church, insists upon Jesus as “The Way, the Truth and the Life”, and it is in Jesus that the way to the Father is secured. Remember that the very early Christian Church practised a Christianity known simply as ’The Way’. One way only. Amid a world like ours where there were many competing religions and viewpoints, and the insistence on one way was a definitive mark of the Church’s preaching of the Gospel of Christ. And where there was one way there was one Jesus Christ. Doors have also come to be representative of our powers of discernment and the human mind and the ‘doors’ of its perception. To enter by the way of Jesus is to accept, like doubting Thomas that Jesus is your Lord and your God.
The fact remains that our churches remain a vital point of contact with the living God. Our visitors are a part of our identity as a serving church, with their hopes and dreams, their desire to give thanks, their longing for communion and the receiving of grace, their lighting of a candle or their keeping of silence in a hallowed space? There was a time when Anglican churches in London refused entry to people owing to the colour of the skin and their social background up until the early 1960s.
The Gospels we are reading from St John at this Eastertide are for and on behalf of the life of God’s Church. The Resurrection is above all else a deliverance from fear and a living for Christ, a listening to the voice of Jesus who is the shepherd and guardian of our souls. In the London of 2020 it is going to become more important that our church can make that 180 degree turn outwards and in and among the communities it is called to serve - even if the scope for our physical contact is for now somewhat hampered. A Church turning itself inside out and toward the stranger, the traveller, the outsider, toward our local community, toward and onto our great city of London, and onto our world and with its suffering and pain.
The figure of Jesus as the Door of the Sheepfold is the one which is calling us to a greater realisation in our own lives of his loving compassion. As we meet Christ so Christ meets us this morning and as this happens a prayer is being asked of us. That the doors of our own minds and hearts, closed off through fear and anxiety may, by the gentle action of Christ, be opened a little, and that the light of Christ’s Resurrection and its liberating power may flood into those places where we may see and love anew. If we can respond in this way there lies the hope of a church which lives the Resurrection. For it will have experienced the renewal of hearts and minds that makes more resurrection possible. The doors of its very heart will lie open.
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter 2020
26th Apr 2020
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter Year A (2020)
The Supper at Emmaus
“Did not our hearts burn within us as we spoke with him on the road?”
The meeting of the stranger on the Road to Emmaus is akin to Mary’s meeting with the gardener who happens to be Jesus. She recognizes Jesus as he calls her by name. But at Emmaus, Jesus is recognized firstly (in retrospect) as a travelling companion and then more directly in the breaking of bread. The communication is non-verbal. But it is in the familiar action of the breaking of bread that the disciples are reminded both of the Jesus they knew in ordinary time and witness the Christ they now encounter as their Living God.
The Supper at Emmaus allows us to see the emergent Christian Faith and its relationship to past scripture, to the physical appearance of Christ and then to what St John Henry Newman called ‘God’s presence and his very self and essence all divine’ as Jesus makes himself known to them.
The Dutch Painter Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) was a visionary, able to see into the deep recesses of the mystery of human being, as is the case in his picture ‘Supper at Emmaus’ (1648). He is able to convey in this painting both a beautiful visual surface and yet also invites us to catch a glimpse of a whole inner world. He does this as he suggests that before anything else, the painting is a living symbol which holds true for all of us. Of the God who reaches out to us before ever we realise God for ourselves. Of the divine action and the human action existing within one act of reception.
Embedded deeply in The Supper at Emmaus lies the promise that Jesus will be with us always and in a particular way in the breaking of the bread, the Eucharist. The breaking of this bread is to be the symbol and sign for all time that God has made his home with us and that in him, “…bidden or not bidden, God is always present”.
St John Henry Newman writes:
A thick black veil is spread between this world and the next… There is no access through it into the next world. In the Gospel this veil is not removed, but every now and then marvellous disclosures are made to us of what is behind it. At times we seem to catch a glimpse of a Form which we shall hereafter only see face to face.”
It’s significant that the two disciples who met the Lord on the road did not at first recognize Him, even when He explained the Scriptures to them and his own identity. For we learn that “…beginning with Moses and the prophets, he expounded to them in all the scriptures, the things that were concerning him.” (Lk. 24:27) They realized only in retrospect that their hearts were burning within them. It was when “he took bread, and blessed, and broke, and gave it to them,” that their eyes were truly opened. This is the moment caught by Rembrandt. The moment of revelation. He helps us to see that the world of ordinary things is nonetheless shot through with the presence of God, who may reveal himself at any time. Is our faith a receptive one? This question echoes the Letter to the Hebrews 11.1 and the telling description of faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen…”
The account of the meeting of the stranger on the road to Emmaus allows us to see how faith in God is apprehended at different levels of perception and understanding. We never ‘see’ or ‘possess’ God completely. Nor did the disciples before us! Rather, we experience him in others, catch glimpses of him, meet him intimately in prayer, or, like the disciples we can recall certain life experiences in which God had been truly present. God is free. We cannot contain God. And for it to be otherwise would make of our visionary faith something less than it should be. Faith as we know is to be tested, Sometimes tested to the very limit.. It is in this way that God is experienced as our source of life and hope and not as a false antidote for all that we experience as contradictory or threatening.
It has been quite meaningful at this time of Coronavirus to observe the countless allusions to our country when last at war some 75 years ago. Richard has shared a marvellous blog from Radio 4 in which the life of Vera Lynn, now 103 years old, chimed in with the Queen’s allusion to her signature song ‘We’ll Meet Again’. The World War involved for the people certain duties and trusts which would not have been asked for in peacetime, and particularly the call for a certain obedience for the sake of the greater good. The Second World War dictum “Is your journey really necessary?” now particularly applies to those who are rushing around our streets without good cause. This idea of our all playing a strong part in the achievement of a great good is one which is a test of or corporate character. Emmaus contains that same call to the maturing of Christian character with Christ as our guide. It provides us with a rich source of joyful and positive resurrection hope as we currently live with realities which limit us and challenge our sense of what constitutes normalcy.
In the last War the National Gallery remained open, even though most of its paintings had been deposited to a slate mine somewhere near Aberystwyth. Even so, with the gallery so rationed of its rich content, the Second World War period was one of a great flourishing of the arts under the directorship of Sir Kenneth Clark. People were drawn more than ever more to the elevating and life enhancing experience of looking upon the great pictures that remained and the new life they imparted.
So too on the Emmaus Road something great is imparted to the Christian Church. … The Resurrected Christ continues to impart its message of joyful hope, a hope experienced in the deep places of the human heart and soul. A life giving and life enhancing hope which promises that Christ is always with us and will never leave us, even and especially when we are being severely tried.