Sermon for Palm Sunday 2021
28th Mar 2021
Palm Sunday 2021
Holy Cross Church
The liturgy for Palm Sunday couldn’t be more dramatic as we meet this morning. In more normal circumstances, we would gather in anticipation of a procession around the outside of the church. This year we gather online to have our palm crosses blessed and to make our spiritual entry into Jerusalem. We have recited the Palm Sunday hymn All Glory Laud and Honour, a hymn of praise to Christ’s majesty, and we have held up the newly blessed palm crosses - a reminder of where this Palm Procession is leading us. We are, with the whole Christian Church on earth, entering Jerusalem with Jesus. We are entering his fateful Passion, his trial, his death on the Cross and his Resurrection from the dead. These are the saving events of the Christian Faith and vital for the human understanding of who Jesus is and what makes him Son of God. In these action we begin what the Church simply calls ‘Holy Week’, the most important week of the Christian year.
Holy Week is called holy because it embodies in Jesus Christ the love of God the Father in the sacrifice of his Son’s body and in the outpouring of his Son’s blood. This is what we call in the Holy Eucharist, ‘a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world’. Holy week contains everything that is necessary to Christian Faith. It lies at the heart of what we believe as Christians: that God the Father sent his son to die for our sins and to rise again from the dead. He did this as a costly act of love and to show us that we are loved by God even before we know we are loved. And on this day, Palm Sunday, and at this time, before we walk with Christ into Holy Week, it is the Church’s duty to ask you in the strongest terms to make time to come to the Holy Week liturgies. To commit yourself, as best as you are able, to the worship of the Church as we observe the holiest week in the Christian calendar. You can only know the mystery of Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection by entering into it and by finding it as you would find something buried deep within your soul. You are here this morning readying yourself to encounter the living Lord Jesus as he shows you the way to the Father’s glory. You are bidden by the words of Thomas before the raising of Lazarus when he said, ‘Let us go with him that we may die with him’.
Jerusalem today is a place of terrible contrasts. It is a jumbled up mix of warring factions. The old city is bounded by Jewish, Christian Muslim and Armenian quarters. The Church of the Holy Sepulcre stands in the middle of the city as the most holy Christian site in the world, and built over Golgotha, the place of the skull, where Jesus died on the Cross. But even in this Holy Church, differing Christian denominations fight over contested spaces from within the building, and there are often angry scuffles and even violence. Nearby is a busy souk or market, with smells of spices and coffee and freshly slaughtered meat, as well as hundreds of shops selling Christian souvenirs and trinkets. Into the same sort of Jerusalem, of intensity and of indifference does Christ enter upon his way.
Well may Jesus wept over Jerusalem. But it is to this Jerusalem of human chaos and doubtful charm, a crazed and yet indifferent kind of Jerusalem, and yet a holy Jerusalem too, that Jesus enters on Palm Sunday.
As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, "If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace -- but now it is hidden from your eyes. Luke 19.41-42.
In the church of the Holy Sepulcre you may queue for hours to get to the place where Jesus died on the cross, and then watch others burying their one arm into the ground and down to the rock below to touch the stones of Calvary. You stand waiting and impatient and wonder why you’re waiting. Then it is your turn to reach down and touch the rock on which the Cross of Christ died. You realise that for a few brief seconds you are the only person in the world touching that rock. The experience is immediate and was for me, overwhelmingly moving.
This is the famous stone
that turneth all to gold;
for that which God doth touch and own
cannot for less be told.
George Herbert ‘Teach Me My God and King’
This morning we go to join Christ in Jerusalem, where we know he will meet suffering and death. We go with him just as we are; knowing all the deficiencies we bring to the task of living and loving, but we go at first hesitant; but nevertheless in faith, aware of God the Father’s love going before us. God is guiding us and lighting our path and drawing us deeper into the wounded, sacred heart of Jesus. We go in this Holy Week with Jesus to Golgotha. And you are invited in this Holy Week to enter into these mysteries, to walk with Christ, to wait and watch with Christ, to sit at the foot of the cross, to wait at the tomb, and to experience the joy of his Resurrection and your resurrection. “If we are united with him in a death like his, we will surely be united within him in a Resurrection like his”. (Romans 6.5).
But for now, as we enter on Holy Week we pray:
Holy and strong,
Holy and immortal,
Have mercy upon us…
Sermon for Lent 5 (Passion Sunday)
21st Mar 2021
Sermon for Lent 5: ‘The Holy Sacrifice’
Post Communion Prayer at the Eucharist:
‘Through him we offer you our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice’
The word ‘sacrifice’ is a powerful word for us today as it speaks of the utmost selfless love that we human beings are capable. For Christians it speaks of the power and passion of God in Jesus as we are able to perceive and feel His presence in the midst of human brokenness, suffering and pain.
Our Mass is the celebration of the reality of Jesus Christ as today, on this Passion Sunday, we are reminded of the sacrifice he had to make in order to draw all people unto himself. He foretells all this in today’s Gospel. The signal for this foretelling is the arrival in Jerusalem of Greeks and gentiles who wish to see Jesus. Suddenly, John says, the little Christian community is about to open itself to the whole world. Jesus Christ is to become Lord of all. The world’s saviour. At our final Lent group meeting last week we amazed at the strong language of being baptized ‘through the death of Christ’ ‘unto our own death’ with which St Paul empowers his listeners. In such a way the Christian life is to become a recapitulation of the life and death of Christ. It is an invitation to more than surface imitation but a call to imitate the selfless living and actions which are Christ’s example.
We ask, merciful God, that you send, in kindness, your Holy Spirit to settle on this bread and wine and fill them with the fullness of Jesus. Let that same Spirit rest on us, converting us from the patterns of this passing world, until we conform to the shape of him whose food we now share.
The eucharistic sacrifice, this Holy Mass, brings this urging of St Paul into the present. In the sacrament of the bread and wine, it calls us all to become in Christ what we have received in Christ. When St Augustine spoke of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, he said they "are called sacraments because in them one thing is seen, while another is grasped. ... What is grasped bears spiritual fruit." What is grasped is grasped with passion and purpose.
Jesus identifies the bread with His Body and the cup of wine with His blood, and we know that He is the Lamb of God who is to be slain on that first Good Friday. The sacrifice of the lamb and the sacrifice of the Christ are the wheat grains crushed as it were and pulverised - obliterated so that new life might emerge.
In our Eucharist today that it focuses on the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. The prayer at the altar says, “we remember His offering of Himself made once for all upon the Cross… we celebrate with this bread and cup His one perfect sacrifice; and our own spiritual sacrifice: accept through Him our sacrifice of thanks and praise…” so that eating and drinking this sacrament we may be renewed by the Spirit, inspired with God’s love and united in the Body of Christ.
The murder of an Anglican priest took place on a housing estate in Liverpool some years ago. He had been stabbed on the very streets which h were his ‘parish beat’. It occurred at the same time as the Church’s liturgical commission was considering this very word ‘sacrifice’. Nearly every report following his death featured the word ‘sacrifice’ to describe his loving commitment to his parish. People obviously knew what that word meant. it had something to do with love, giving up something in consideration for someone else. This is the Christian call to self-sacrifice : for love for others in the joyful and unselfish and un self-conscious shedding of self.
in the hymn ‘When I survey the wondrous Cross’, Isaac Watts sets this out beautifully and succinctly:
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present (offering) far too small,
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my life, my soul my all.
We make our sacrifice without hoping to incur favour with Him, but simply out of love for Him, a love which would not be possible for us to have were it not for the Holy Spirit opening our hearts and minds to receive it.
Here is a poem by a parish priest and theologian, Bill Vanstone, which is also a hymn and which speaks of the Divine sacrificial love which we celebrate at the altar today. It appears in his famous work, ‘Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense’:
Love that gives gives ever more,
Gives with zeal, with eager hands,
Spares not, keeps not, all outpours,
Ventures all, its all expends.
Drained is love in making full;
Bound in setting others free;
Poor in making many rich;
Weak in giving power to be.
Therefore He Who Thee reveals
Hangs, O Father, on that Tree
Helpless; and the nails and thorns
Tell of what Thy love must be.
Thou are God; no monarch Thou
Thron’d in easy state to reign;
Thou art God, Whose arms of love
Aching, spent, the world sustain.
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent
7th Mar 2021
The Third Sunday of Lent Year B
The Cleansing of the Temple
“Zeal for your house will consume me” John 2.20
It’s very shocking to find someone we don’t expect suddenly express a great deal of anger. We can only imagine why Jesus became so angry that he overturned the tables of the money changers and drove everyone out of the Temple. He was literally consumed with anger. This is not the Jesus we are accustomed to, the one who appears to be so serene and self-controlled. Could this be Jesus losing it?
Jesus comes to disturb and to establish a new order. The destruction of the Jewish Temple is an historical fact. It happened in AD70. We know that John wrote this gospel in around AD100 - some thirty years after the Romans totally destroyed the Jerusalem Temple. They had raised it to the ground and drove out all its inhabitants. The Temple, which once lay at the heart of Jewish worship and culture, was suddenly no more. Jerusalem lay in waste and ruin. The Temple itself was actually worshipped as a sign of the inviolability of the Jewish religion and the guarantor of its future existence. The destruction of the Temple tore this kind of faith apart. Why then, does John mention this non-existent temple thirty years after its destruction? Could it be that John sees the destruction of the temple as a way of purifying Judaism? This might be going too far, but he seems critical of temple worship for its own sake and particularly its commercial aspects. Its destruction was followed by the so called diaspora, the scattering of the Jewish people across the known world. For the Jewish people there was no longer a religious centre, a place lying at the geographical and spiritual heart of their existence. They were destined to be wanderers, which was their lot until the founding of the State of Israel in 1947.
John’s message goes deeper than this, however. We have a clue in St Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, written before John’s Gospel and making a reference to the human body as a temple for the Holy Spirit:
Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
1 Corinthians 3.16
These words were written by St Paul twenty years before the destruction of the Temple in around AD50. Paul uses the temple image to speak about the state of the human soul. The message couldn’t be more direct as the idea of Temple is taken to signify that which bears within it the true spirit of God and then Paul goes on to say to his listener ‘you are that temple’. It is in this way that
Jesus’ own prediction of the temple which is his body, will be destroyed only to be raised up in three days. He comes not to abolish existing Jewish understandings but to bring them to fulfilment in His person. By predicting his death and resurrection he is establishing a new centre of gravity. The Temple is now become the inviolable human soul.
So then, we have the idea of the Temple of Jerusalem, the destroyed edifice, being superseded in Christ in the idea of the ‘temple of the body’. It is the body of Jesus which, when sacrificed in the Cross, will be God’s way of drawing us into a new relationship with Him.
“When I am lifted up I will draw everyone to myself”. John 12.32.
It has been natural for Christian writers to draw a natural and creative relationship between the body and the soul. Last week’s collect for Lent 2 expresses it best:
Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended against all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Pope Francis’ visit this week to Iraq ended up in the city of Ur, which is Abraham’s birth place. The significance of Abraham, the Father of the three religions Christian, Jewish and Muslim was profound. The Pope reminded religious leaders, that all of us are a part of one world family and that before acts of violence out of religious and ethnic difference, the abiding sense of our common humanity should prevail and should encourage us all to unite. I think in his words was also an echo of the need to ‘cleanse the temple’ of human intolerance and violence wherever it may be found. And of course in our own institutions and churches there needs to be a similar cleansing. This is already being carried forward in our safeguarding on behalf of vulnerable children and adults. But the strong message is that communities of faith, institutions which are not honestly and courageously self-critical cannot embrace a mission which is expressly communicated to the most marginalised and the most vulnerable. In Cleansing the Temple, in righteous anger and physical defiance, Jesus exemplifies the Christian conscience, which examines its own prejudices and shortcomings and is ready to act in a new way for the cleansing of the temple which is for the refreshment of the whole.
It was as though we may all say, with Jesus
“Zeal for your house has consumed us”.
Homily for Ash Wednesday
17th Feb 2021
A S H W E D N E S D A Y S E R M O N
“Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return,
turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ”
The Christian Call for fasting and obedience comes after a year in which we have already been fasting. We have fasted long accepted normalities, we have fasted the long-accustomed routines and rhythms of our daily lives. Under Covid restrictions, we have fasted freedom of movement and school, church and work routines. We have fasted the old predictabilities. We have fasted long trusted and physically close contact with many of our loved ones, and we have fasted the sustaining spiritual energy that our live congregational worship once gave us despite the rescue of ‘Zoom’ . The past year of Coronavirus has entered the world upon a whole year of Lenten fast. The words of the priest at this evening’s rite of the imposition of ashes come as a reminder of our mortality – “dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return”. In the past year, this has been a constant thread in our consciousness of the Coronavirus and its dreadful spread – that we are mortal and that our lives hang on a delicate thread suspended in very provisional time. Hence the reminder of the composition of our bodies as dust. I remember my mother describing our house-proud neighbour in whose living room there was not ‘a speck of dust’. Dust should become just a nuisance to be polished or wiped clean. It is rather unnerving to be reminded that this same dust is made up of human skin particles, which are being shed by human bodies all the time. Dust is a reminder of our lives as bearing continual movement and change and loss. The acknowledgement of our mortality is equally a reminder of the One to which we owe our mortality – God alone. God it is who follows us “…through the changes and chances of this fleeting world.” God is the constant.
Ash Wednesday comes to us as the offering of an invitation that we find difficult to accept. It is the invitation to enter a wilderness and to meet Christ. This is the desert which invites the emptying of self. And it is in the self-emptying that we may discover in Jesus a way back to God, and our reconciliation with Him. Knowing who we really are and knowing who God really is. And so the desert becomes the place of utmost realisation. It invites the offering of ourselves to advance in the hope which God has set before us in Jesus Christ “…just as I am without one plea”.
Lent asks us a question: Is my life based on the satisfaction of a myriad of human desires and distractions, and if so, how is it that such satisfaction has not left me satisfied? What might life be like if my wanting were to issue out of God? Our Lord Christ goes into the desert to decide for God and to reject those things which are not of God. The act of deciding-for-God is vital. We find it written into one of most popular English books ever written: ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’. The overcoming by Jesus of temptation in the wilderness has set Lent upon its centuries old course. It sets us on our way, too. It does this not by the imposition of a whole series of small restrictions, even though certain restrictions on our wanting may prove beneficial. No. it does it in Paul’s appeal that above all things, we should ‘be reconciled to God’, become one in Him, and accept Him as our life’s true meaning and purpose. To wait upon Him, listen to Him, converse with Him, learn to do his will…
As we place our trust in God in the Rite of Imposition of Ashes on this first day of Lent, we proclaim the power of the Cross of Christ, which lies in and through and above all things and all people in the showing of God’s particular kind of generous and selfless love. This love looks tonight like a cross made of ashes. It reminds us of our mortality and calls from us a longing for communion with God. This is a strong message for the beginning of Lent.
This ash cross is not shown to tell the world how pious we are, but of the God we are acknowledging. He is over all things, and in the Cross of Jesus he is our mortality; our own living and dying. As St Paul reminds us “If we have become on with him in a death like his we will become one with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6.3). But for now, on this challenging Ash Wednesday, the Church’s forward progress is well and truly set in motion.
Ash Wednesday proffers an invitation that we receive only with reluctance. This is the invitation to come away to a place of deeper knowing through which, through Christ and with Christ and in Christ, we may advance in the hope which he has set before us. It is never too late to make a beginning and to start, with a reminder of our mortality, and then to come to Jesus, the source of all life and meaning. Jesus, the one who emptied himself of all but love… Henri Nouwen.
Sermon for the Sunday next before Lent
14th Feb 2021
Sermon for the Sunday next before Lent Year B
“And he was transfigured before them” Mark 9.10.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.
G M Hopkins
Transfiguration of Christ on the mountain is not for the Gospel writer Mark, a theatrical effect, but one which introduces notes of awe and of wonder and draws us into itself. For Mark and Hopkins we are ‘falling into the hands of the living God’. It is a meeting with the Jesus who has become Christ. It happens right before our eyes. To see such things with the inner eye is to experience glory. The glory is enveloped in brightness, and yet reveals a terrible secret - of the Christ, the One who has fulfilled all things, even unto death and resurrection. The secret is disclosed in dazzling white and yet within thick shadow and dark cloud. Even though the Feast of the Transfiguration takes place in August, this Gospel reading is deliberately set before us as a key text for the Sunday before Lent. The mountain of Transfiguration the place of amazing appearances, and also of stark realities; of terrible truth. It points to the Cross even as it manifests the glory of God. As we sing the well-known hymn ‘Tis Good Lord to be Here’, there is already a strong sense of foreboding:
Fulfiller of the past,
Promise of things to be,
We hail Thy body glorified
And our redemption see.
This terrible truth-telling in the Transfiguration shows us that there is always the danger of not seeing the other side of things; of the existence and the seriousness of human suffering, of life as a struggle and of the need for forgiveness and the experience of much pain and adversity. This is the Cross of Jesus and it is our Cross, too. Jesus takes this Cross upon himself and it is the Cross of Jesus which is the glory that God reveals in the mountain-top. But this is a strange and difficult kind of glory. It is the one which brings us into contact with the living God. But this is the God who is vital, and whose influence upon us is as the double edged sword,
…piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart…” Hebrews 4.12
No wonder that this reading is set for the Sunday before Lent. It was not easy consolation that is provided here. Instead, there is the invitation to find our truest humanity in Christ and to find it through ‘the changes and chances of this fleeting world’. This is to begin to be honest with ourselves and toward God. To recognise life’s essential contingency. To begin to find in God that active love and the mercy we need to move us on. For we cannot stay on the mountain. It is a place of revelation and a vital and necessary point of departure.
I once went to the Louvre, the French National Art Gallery in Paris. At some point all visitors head towards one great painting, The Mona Lisa. She gazes impassively through bullet proof glass and is constantly surrounded by her own paparazzi – with cameras and continuous flashes of blinding white light. She has become like the namesake Madonna, a superstar. It is difficult to get near her. But with all the adulation, one wonders what is going on? What is it that is happening when thousands of tourists take photos constantly? There seems to be a manic rush to record it all, and while the photographer is snapping away to ignore its real presence. There is the attempt to capture it. To possess it. To take it away. The Transfiguration offers us the opposite of the blinding camera flash and the image you can put into your pocket. The appearance of Jesus in white light on the mountain-top is God’s revelation to his people, you and me, of his merciful love. In all we have to do or to suffer, God’s presence lies before us as and with it the promise of his holiness to surround us and to inhabit our inmost being. His face shines to show us the light of the revelation of the fullness of God…What is real is not looked at from exterior vision but from within the truth of what has appeared…
But how are we to bear true witness, especially as we approach the beginning of Lent? The Church offers us as individuals a way forward in the practice of Sacramental Confession. To tell it like it is. Though it has been derided and caricatured and is less practised by many, its effectiveness is very real. The costliness of our being more honest about what we are and what we do wrong is often too humiliating to bear. But this is a necessary humbling, a Cross, which provides us with an effective remedy. It provides a pathway to the restoration of the soul, often so damaged and maimed by our own essential pride. It is an attempt at an honesty from which new life may emerge. We trivialise this aspect of our lives at great cost to the integrity of the Christian Faith. The Transfiguration opens up on honesty to reality. It is what St Paul called
The light of the fullness of the revelation of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ”. 2 Corinthians 4.6.
It is a revelation of what lies most true for human nature. It provides the marriage between what the Old Prayer Book in its General Thanksgiving called ‘The means of Grace and the hope of glory’.