A Sermon for Ascensiontide
23rd May 2021
Holy Cross Church Cromer Street
A Sermon for the Feast of the Ascension
One of the greatest discoveries in the painting of pictures was not of a paint was oil paint; a paint that glistened and could reveal the effects of light. Before the 1400s paintings were made with egg tempera, a mixture of coloured paint powder bound with egg yolk and mixed with a palette to make a paste. The good thing about the egg yolk was that it dried the paint quickly. The bad thing was that it always dried as matt, and it produced a non-reflective flat painted surface. This made it very difficult to paint light and for the surface of the painting to attract light. And so paintings up to this period are painted on thick cuts of wood and appear very flat. The painter has to work very hard to paint light (done with white streaks) and water (usually with wavy lines). This was sometimes compensated for (if you could afford it!) by the adding of gold leaf so that the painting gave off a bright shine, and this was good for icons but could not produce an image which was what we might call ‘life-like’. It was the discovery of oil paint which changed everything. Oil glistened and made colour shine, and so an eye could twinkle or a drop of water be seen as a reflective globule. You could even paint a mirror and reproduce its effects as in Jan Van Eyck’s 1434 painting, The Arnolfini Portrait in the National Gallery
As we come to the Feast of the Ascension of Christ a similar problem faces both the artist and the Church. Traditionally the Ascension of Jesus Christ has, as you will see on the illustration to this morning’s new sheet, has been depicted as the group of disciples gaze up to see through the clouds a pair of feet! It always seems rather comic. There were no more means at the disposal of the artist to convey the Ascension. Its truer and deeper meaning is not about what is seen but about the very nature of God and of what lies deep. The real meaning of the Ascension allows us to see that as Christ returns to the Father, so humanity and divinity also find their true meaning in and with one another and not apart from one another. As Jesus returns to the Father Heaven is joined to earth. Humankind is transformed in its slow but increasingly sure understanding of who God is in Jesus Christ.
This mixing and merging is symbolised in a small ceremony embedded in this Eucharist as the priest, preparing the Eucharistic offering, pours a small amount of water into the chalice he has filled with wine. And as he does this he says these words “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity”. The water does not dilute. The coming of Christ brings about the meeting point between the divine and human realms, and also the heavenly and the earthly; which have in him mixed and merged; and produced the bright glimmer which we have called GLORY and the influence which is what we have called HOLY. The great prayer of worship sums it all up. It is called the Sanctus:
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord,
God of power and might,
Heaven and Earth are full of your glory.
Hosanaah in the Highest!
Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord,
Hosannah in the Highest!
This is the glory, that emerges out of Christ’s own humility and obedience to suffering. We are reminded in Ephesians 4.6 that Christ “ascended on high and led captivity captive”. And so in this way we may see the Ascension as the celebration of the glory not only of God but also of humanity and the unlikely possibilities that may emerge out of muddling and struggling lives like ours. God has become like us in Jesus Christ so that we may now share in the divine likeness, which for the first time becomes accessible to us in Him.
Archbishop Michael Ramsay was one who constantly proclaimed the Gospel of Christ in terms of its irradiation of God’s glory, which is the life of man in its fullest potential. He wished that these words, from St Irenaus, 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.
“Where there is no vision; the people perish” says the writer of Proverbs in 29.18. The Ascension grants us that vision, maybe crudely expressed as a pair of feet, but in actual fact opening up for us a new vision of what John the Divine called “New Heavens and a New Earth”. And the coming of this vision is very important in our own times. If we are living in an age where we are defined merely as consumers, sharers of basic information rather than conversationalists; where increasingly we see ourselves as subject to forces and influences beyond our control, and where language is abbreviated and human experience subject to so many mechanical transactions, then we need a new vision which embraces us in all our humanity and which is possessed of radical compassion.. The opening up of the idea of the Christ who ‘leads captivity captive’, the creation of ‘new heavens and a new earth’ brings us to the place where life is no longer seen as pertaining to the old dull flat, two dimensional existence, the egg-bound one, but bright with light and multi- dimensional. It is a life which reaches beyond itself and finds God as Glory: The glory of God is the living Man; The life of Man is the Vision of God”. This is the same God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” and who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus
(2 Corinthians 4.6.)
A new dimension is opened up for us; one which has united our earthly existence with our Maker and Redeemer, and which lies before us as our ultimate; our truest potential. The Light of Christ will be able to be seen and known for what it truly is.
Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter
16th May 2021
Easter 7 Sermon Year B
(The Sunday after the Ascension and before Pentecost)
“That they may be one as we are one”.
The words of John Chapter 17 lie at the very heart of John’s teaching. His Gospel tells us that Jesus comes from God and goes back to God. The space in between these two movements is the one which speaks of the fulfilling of a God-given destiny. This morning's words of Jesus form part of what is known as ‘the farewell discourse’, in which the fulfilment of his mission and its final farewell brings with it a prayer for the unity of humankind. The Cole Porter song said ‘every time we say good bye, I die a little’ and in Jesus’s ‘goodbye’ discourse, there is this sense of final farewell as we ready ourselves for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. His 'farewell' contains the hope which sets human destiny alongside the call to Christian unity. ‘That they may be one’ says Jesus’, ‘…even as the Father and I are one’. On this Sunday, the first after Ascension Day, this Gospel reading truly marks the shift between Christ’s earthly existence and the hope which he carries for us all as he returns to the Father in the heavenly realm.
To speak about unity is not to speak of uniformity or sameness but rather to speak of things which are experienced and held in common. The idea of a global co-dependent common humanity is the one which was been forged out of the two world wars. It took these two devastating world conflagrations for the message of a united nations to make itself truly known. It was formed out of the death, destruction, wounds and ashes of world war as a hope whose time had now come. It was a learning from past history and its mistakes. It emerged out of the tragedy of carpet bombing, civilian death and the Holocaust. It was the creation of what Aldous Huxley had called ‘brave new world’. There is the same sense in St John’s Gospel looks forward to a brave, new world which will be realized as the life of God existent in the life of humankind. Both would, in Christ, live in natural harmony with one another. This was not to be mere ‘wishful thinking’ or an idle and ill-founded hope. This was to be a unity based on experience and upon fact, upon a future hope emerging out of past and present realities and upon an utterly realistic account of the human condition as founded in the life and death, the resurrection and the ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Dag Hammarskjold as United Nations Secretary General 1953-1961 spoke these words on the need fora switching over to ‘fighting optimism’:
It is in a sense a switch from the atmosphere of pre-1914 to what I believe is the atmosphere of our generation…—a switch from the, so to say, mechanical optimism of previous generations to what I might call the fighting optimism of this present generation. We have learned it the hard way, and we will certainly have to learn it again and again and again.
The call of Christ is the call to see God in one another and to experience God in and through one another and to learn from one another. The Christian faith is one which is, in human terms, always relational. To see God in one another is to live as a ‘fighting optimists’. It is to accept along the way that we are far from the perfected beings we make ourselves out to be. The plain fact is that I need my neighbor not for what I can get out of him but in order to fulfil my own destiny. I need my neighbor in order to find out what kind of person I am. This is surely what all the words about God and love in the New Testament lead us. This is the outcome of the great commandment to love God with all my heart and soul and to love my neighbor as myself? Now I pledge to involve myself more fully and more deeply in a love of humankind as I find it in my own life’s modest sphere. Now I pledge that I may learn from my neighbor that I, like them, can be weak, fallible and prone to what the Pope has called ‘the spirit of narcissism’. Any real compassion I can show my neighbor awakens me to the life that God has given me. This might turn out to be the true ‘pearl of great price’; the one thing needful for my soul’s salvation.
The spiritual legacy of our ascended Lord is the one which is the prayer for human unity, at the individual, communal national and global levels. This is Jesus’ message of farewell to the world he has loved; the necessary preparation for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost; that we should find one another in one another. We are to find our true integrity in and through our life together and in the understanding and forgiveness we can show along the way. In this way we can begin to give answer to the prayer of Christ and to begin to practice that ‘fighting optimism’ for which a great United Nations Secretary General once struggled and died, that we might become what we have been made to become – united as one in Christ.
Sermon for Easter 5. 2021
2nd May 2021
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter Year B
“I only love God as much as I love the person I love the least”.
Those are the words of Dorothy Day. She’s not that well known this side of the Atlantic but she is something of a famous figure for most American Christians. She was originally a Communist but she discovered the faith and was baptized at the age of 30 in 1927. She believed that her ideals of social justice were better lived out as a Christian than as a communist and she set up the “House of Hospitality” to work with the poorest residents of New York’s slums.
She was very scathing of the American Christianity of her time. She saw a lot of supposed faith, a lot of people who claimed to love God. But those same people could be highly judgmental of those living in poverty around them. This was an America of the so-called “New Deal” of Franklin D Roosevelt - the reforms that brought in the kind of welfare system in the United States that was also coming into being across Europe to protect vulnerable people - the unemployed, the sick, the homeless, the elderly. It betokened a new level of active trust between government and people and a challenge to the brutal free market in America where those who couldn’t afford to eat were just viewed as indolent and inferior. Out of these circumstances, Dorothy Day’s statement of faith was also an honest acknowledgement of the idle promise of love as a broken one: “I only love God as much as I love the person I love the least”. She is saying the same thing, of course, as St John in his first letter:
Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
Dorothy Day reminds us firstly that love is not a feeling so much as a decision. We must love our brothers and sisters, John tells us. The Gospel reminds us that all people are potentially our brothers and sisters, certainly all the baptized as we see in the new bond created between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Both are transformed by the honest acknowledgement of their oneness in Christ. Jesus goes on to say that we should love our enemies. Now our culture believes that love is a feeling - most pop songs are all about it. But we are never going to feel love for our enemies. It is impossible to feel love for all people in the way John talks about here. So for the Christian, we are able to love because we decide to love. We decide not to judge because it is our refusal to condemn that makes love possible.
Dorothy Day also reminds us that as well as a decision, love is an action. Love needs to be expressed in concrete form. Dorothy Day really got on with that in practical ways running a soup kitchen and housing the homeless. In a big city like ours with so many different needs, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by a sense of inability to make a difference. But there are always things that each one of us can do to make our love for others concrete. Indeed there has to be if we are truly to be Christians and follow this very direct command of Christ. So love is a decision and love is an action.
Our society is threatened, as are others, by its own inequality and fragmentation. It is one of the real challenges that results in more cosmopolitan and diverse societies and the changes and transformations that affect their sense national identity and personal security. And where there is a period of disenchantment with the political process, so a gap is left for the reactionary to voice and practice their reaction in the face of these challenges. The unreflecting, reactionary mode of being is inconsistent with the New Testament which sees everybody as connected to everybody else. We see this in the wonderful image of life in Christ as life on the vine. All the branches bear their own fruit and the parable clearly implies a personal responsibility, a judgment of our individual actions. But all are woven together and connected to one another in one organic unity. The vine either flourishes as a whole or it withers and dies as a whole. It will flourish when the whole vine is grounded in Christ who is the God of love.
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
Those aren’t warm fluffy words for our comfort. Those are challenging, radical words for our time. So let’s be people who stand against condemnation, people for whom love is a decision and an action. Love as transformative of the human condition. Let’s pray that our society might be a fruitful vine where all may flourish and where we all may grow in the love of God.
As Christians, it is our duty, as we approach this week’s local elections as voters, to reflect deeply on what kind of society we envisage. The Christian decision for love and inclusiveness must surely inform where we put our cross on Thursday, to greatest as to the least of my brothers and sisters, in whom the love of God lives and moves and has its being in their lives as pray it does in yours.
Rev'd. Jim Linthicum, Senior Chaplain, Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital.
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter
25th Apr 2021
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter 2021
“I am the Good Shepherd”.
During these Sundays of Eastertide we forgo The Old Testament Reading. It’s substituted by a reading from the Acts of the Apostles. To reinforce the case for the experience of the apostles we have words which crown their experience of resurrection life with words from Jesus, revealing both his new identity under God and in turn the new relationship which the apostles have with their former teacher. For he is now in the words of Thomas become ‘their Lord and God’. The resurrection marks a sea change in their relationships not only with God but with their fate, their world and its future course.
Jesus does not leave them in any doubt as to how things have changed. They have changed because of him. And he is at pains to identify himself to them, to reveal himself to them in strong terms. In John’s Gospel we have the so-called ‘I am’ sayings of Jesus’. And in our Gospel reading ‘I am the Good Shepherd’. Jesus informs them and reassures them in equal measure, and repeats in the Gospel the fact that ‘he lays down his life’ as a ‘good shepherd’ and acts to protect them from the wolf – the one who snatches them away and scatters them; a powerful image of falling away from God.
Many hymns take up Jesus’ reassuring words and especially ‘The King of Love my Shepherd is’ :
Perverse and foolish ‘oft I strayed
But yet in love he sought me
And on his shoulder gently laid
And home rejoicing brought me
And directly to us individually is St Teresa of Avila’s famous prayer of serenity:
Let nothing trouble you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices…
The Good shepherd is the one who is carrying us, guiding and protecting us and helping us to realise that in God’s sustaining presence, we have all we need. The one thing necessary is God and without him we lack what we need to live authentic lives. For it is in God that what troubles and threatens to undermine us in this life finds its response.
This reassuring note is most necessary for the community of Christian Faith as we emerge out of a period of un certainty and upheaval. As I wander the streets of the parish there have been lots of conversations around ‘checking one another out’. Of course we have all been able to ‘tell it like it is’ but for Christians generally it must be possible to say that there has been a strong sense of ‘God being with us all the way’. We have been led through this current crisis to understand that our lives are - all of them on this earth – being lived provisionally. That our lives, even denied of the usual solaces of social ingathering and of satisfying old routines are more than these things. St Teresa is able to comment with startling truth. She reminds us that ‘all things are passing away’ and that life finds us, if we did but know it, in a very real state of profound waiting. But it is how we wait under duress that is important for her and for us. We may wonder when frustrated by the strain of events that ‘patience may obtain all things’. We wait under the care and guidance of the loving God - for God to heal and renew. We wait in vain if we wait for our own ‘wish fulfilment’.
A phrase repeated in this morning’s Gospel is the one in which Christ repeats that he has ‘laid down his life’ for the life of flock which is the community of faith. The epistle reminds us that
‘God laid down his life for us and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. Little children, let us love , not in word or speech, but in truth and action’
The spirituality of waiting on God breaks forth into the spirituality of serving God actively. We mirror the activity of Christ the Good Shepherd when we too are mindful for the lives of others. It helps me in prayer to consider the lives of those in need and to ask myself how I might be feeling and coping or not coping in their situation? The case this week of a member of our congregation being forced to seek new accommodation at the age of 90 put me in this same place. How would I be feeling? Wouldn’t it gladden my heart if I thought I had friends who would understand a little of what I was going through and come and help me? The early Christians, those for whom John’s Gospel and letters are addressed, were motivated to see the Church in this way, as one organic body, and to mind it and mend it in acts of unfussy and unselfish care. It was this response to the human condition which gave the early Church the power to grow and to become so numerous and influential.
It was and is under the banner of loving care, following the example of Christ the Good Shepherd, that St Teresa’s English incarnation, Mother Julian of Norwich could say with all meaning and muster:
“All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well”.
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter
18th Apr 2021
Sermon for Easter 2
“My Lord and my God” John 20.28
The post-resurrection appearances of Christ serve not only to drive home the message of the Resurrection but convict the witness in the deepest level of their being. They give us the sense of God’s calling and of Christ as its visible manifestation. Doubting Thomas is shown the wounds of Christ as signs of the meaning of his suffering and death. It is by Christ’s wounds that the ‘secret’ of his Messiahship is communicated. It is through the wounded Christ that the full fruits of his ministry is understood and responded to. It is as if God the Father is saying ‘It is by these means alone that my love for you is shown”. “It is in response to my wounded Son that I call you to serve me”. “To know these things you must go by the way of unknowing”. “To serve me you must cast all care aside”. “I am calling you to believe in this…”
Thomas was not present to hear the first glad news of the Resurrection. Because of his absence he can only accept its truth doubtfully. He wants not only to ‘see’ it but also even to touch it! He wants to experience the resurrection viscerally and even to use a word shared by all who have received the Covid jab, subcutaneously. Only by putting his finger into Christ’s wounds will he recognise Christ as truly alive. The Gospel writer John wishes us to know that the call to serve Christ, to embrace the Christian vocation takes the individual beyond the realm of proof and into the deeper realm of sacrificial and unselfconscious self-giving. Thomas’ doubting is of little importance if it does not draw us into its counterpart – the call which draws you out of yourself and into the life of the other. The wounds are a reminder that this may be costly, but c’est la vie, as the French say, ‘that is life’. Real, true life.
The Camden Abu Dis Friendly Association is led by Dr Nandita Dowson. Camden teachers and other community leaders, under its aegis, have been visiting settlements in Palestine, esp. in Abu Dis. They have met other schoolteachers, parents, and young people who are under sentence of isolation in the Palestinian territories east of Jerusalem. I will never forget when asking the young people of Abu Dis what they wanted to do as a career an unusually large number said ‘doctor’ or ‘nurse’. It was moving to meet the young personalities who have suffered tremendous early dislocation and disharmony. Yet they want to dedicate their futures to mend and enhance and improve their social environment. Somewhere deep inside is the need to express something of their longing for freedom and harmony and to want to help make this possible for others, too. These are vocations which seem to appear out of nowhere, but do in fact emerge out of the fruits of a wounded existence.
I noticed in all the filmography relating to HRH the late Prince Philip that the motto at the foot of his crest simply says: ‘God is my help’. When the lives of a child like Philip and the Palestinian youth emerge out of experiences which have been unsure, and where perhaps there has been great emotional challenge, so too the recourse to express something of what it might be like to live ‘on the other side of hope’? Many remarkably caring persons, coming from difficult backgrounds, have nonetheless ‘put themselves out’ in the service of others, and particularly at the level of bodily care, to make this world a better place. From a background of inherited displacement may come the desire to offer it back as a passionate response to the beauty and possibility of life itself? There is the accompanying idea of the interconnectedness of vocations, particularly ones which bring strength and healing to those they nurture. We may remember personalities in our own lives who have truly believed in us and given us in turn much needed self-belief and self-confidence. They are bringers of resurrection. No doubt Prince Philip owed much to two stunning vocations, one which belonged to his own mother who became a religious and founded an order for nursing the sick, and the other the Jewish emigree Kurt Hahn who, as the prince once said ‘understood adolescents better than they understood themselves’. These bringers of resurrection, having experienced the brunt of suffering in their own lives had nonetheless made possible resurrection in others. God’s great helpers.
In Prince Philip’s mother, Princess Alice, the recourse to God, out of a life of great personal trial, was I think, something of a key. I say all this as our attention is drawn to the means by which Christ shows his wounds to Thomas. This is not just a ‘showing’ but a visceral immersion into the wounded Christ. We may shiver a little when we consider what lies beneath our skin, our bodily packaging; what the medics call ‘sub-cutaneous’. It relates powerfully to what lies at the heart of our human woundedness and vulnerability. The ‘going deeper’ is a figure for the deeper and more profound response which the resurrection of Christ calls out in us all…
Thomas’ doubting is, in fact, of little importance. It serves as a powerful contrast, to draw us to that greater recognition of God which lies deep within our human nature, and which is the catalyst for that greater response to service of which the wounded Christ is the living embodiment. This has emerged not out of personal choice alone, but whose possibility is for the transformation of our lives and other lives. Thomas is finally able to give his assent. His teacher, Jesus of Nazareth is now both human and divine and his resurrection life is now and forever possible for all who come to him. He has seen his salvation.
The Orthodox Churches call ‘Doubting Thomas ‘Believing Thomas’, for his response to that which he has come to see in truth:
“My Lord and my God!”
Christ is Risen!
Rev. Christopher Cawrse