Monday, 13 June 2022

What kind of God? A Trinity Sunday sermon

 

Proverbs 8.1-4, 22-31 Before the earth came into being, Wisdom was born

Romans 5.1-5 The love of God has been poured into our hearts

John 16.12-15 The Spirit of truth will lead you to the complete truth

 

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How often, I wonder, do we ever really think about God.

 

It seems an odd question to ask in a church.

 

After all, isn’t part of coming to church about believing in God?

 

We refer to God a lot in prayers and hymns, we claim insights into God’s will and say that God is interested in our world and in us.

 

Do we ever really ponder God? Is the worship and adoration of God front and centre of our hearts and minds when we come to church?

 

Jesus Christ, as shown in today’s gospel reading is all about setting us aright with God, and all that flows from that in how we think and speak and act.

 

He notes that the sheer weight of the mystery of God is unbearable without him, and without the Holy Spirit of God to continue to lead us into all truth.

 

It’s easy, and convenient, to dodge talking about God even in church.

 

Perhaps we are like footballers who talk endlessly about 4-4-2 formations, passing, heading, crossing and the offside rule, but never consider the nature of the ball they kick.

 

It’s a trivial example perhaps, but do we really consider the mystery at the heart of faith: God?

 

Ironically atheists seem to think more about the existence and nature of God than many people of faith.

 

Atheism, an emphatic belief that there is no God to be understood or worshipped, challenges us to consider who God is, and who God isn’t.

 

Often an atheist asks, ‘what kind of God would allow such and such?’ It’s as if they want to believe in a god, but it’s a question that Trinity Sunday demands too: what kind of God do we believe in?

 

It matters what we believe about God; it matters that we believe in God.

 

The object of our worship is where we locate our heart, our desires, our purpose.

 

Human beings have the capacity to make all sorts of things their gods.

 

Many ancient religions and contemporaryspiritualities’ regard elements of creation, on earth or in the skies, as things to be worshipped: for the ancient Egyptians it was Ra, the sun god.

 

Those heading off to Stonehenge at the end of the month for the summer solstice will also reverence the sun.

 

After all, the sun was, and is, a source of life, with power and energy, light and warmth.

 

But neither the sun – s-u-n – nor moon, nor rivers, nor springs nor anything else in all creation brings us to life, has the capacity help us see beyond ourselves.

 

The sun cannot save us from the mirk and mire of human existence. As Genesis notes, in creation God put the sun in its place (cf Genesis 1.17-18) and saw that it is good.

 

Nature is compelling and beautiful, but it is a gift to us to be cherished and tended, but it is not our god.

 

Psalm 8, sung this morning, is a beautiful meditation on just that theme.

 

This idolising continues in contemporary culture when parents make gods of their children; advertising makes a god of the toned and lithe human body; food (cf Philippians 3.19), drink, even fun, are seen as the highest Good.

 

If those are the forms of devotion that we see today this is because the kind of god that is ultimately believed in is the autonomy of the individual: I am the beginning and ending of my own reality; creator, producer and star of my own drama.

 

And if I am my own god, then everything is on my terms.

 

That is the secular creed: I believe in me.

 

A Christian cannot ultimately say ‘I believe in me; I believe in my own power to sort out and save my life’.

 

What we do profess, we say at the beginning of the Creed: ‘Credo in unum Deum’ - I believe in one God.

 

The Creed is the distilled account of our witness to who God reveals Godself to be  and our response to the atheist question: what kind of God?

 

In the Creeds we describe the God who is ‘above all things and through all things and in all things’ (Epistle I to Serapion, 28-30, St Athanasius Office of Readings, The Most Holy Trinity).

 

St Athanasius echoes this: ‘Yes, certainly “above all things”’ as the Father, the first principle and origin; and truly “through all things” that is through the Word, and finally “in all things” in the Holy Spirit’.

 

In making that profession of faith we are claiming something deeply true about God – the oneness of God – and about ourselves.

 

Since when we say ‘I believe in God’ we are saying that the source of all that is, seen and unseen, is not generated by our own imaginations, not a projection of our fantasies about ourselves, but we are rooted in the invisible God who is made visible in Jesus Christ and continues to be known to us in the Holy Spirit.

 

This God, our God, is known intimately in his face, the face of Jesus Christ. And we seek his face in the sacraments, in prayer, in scripture.

 

To see Christ is to see the Father, that is, to see the God who is both beyond ourselves, and ‘Emmanuel: God with us’ (Matthew 1.18), who diverts us from our self-destructive ways and the idols we would so merrily create for ourselves.

 

‘What kind of God?’ asks the atheist.

 

Trinity Sunday is the annual invitation card to the day by day placing of God at the very heart and centre of our lives.

 

God, the Holy Trinity, is not a mystery to be explained but an invitation to be accepted.

 

Responding to the invitation we fix our gaze on the face of Christ and are drawn into the love of God that is both perfect within the Godhead and spills out into human existence.

 

We can say, with any atheist, that we do not believe in a god who is capricious, grumpy, ill-willed or takes pleasure from natural disaster or devastating illness.

 

Rather the God in whom we believe condescends to share our humanity, comes to renew creation and shape us into the people he created us to be in the first place.

 

Only in God’s power, and not our own, can we overcome the tendency to be possessive, controlling, manipulative and self-destructive.

 

All that is God’s is declared to us by Jesus Christ and, in the power of the Holy Spirit, we are led by the hand into all truth, that is the truth of God.

 

At the heart of Catholic Christian faith is this deep yet ever generating mystery: God the maker of all things wills to save us from our self-destruction in the person of Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit: three persons, yet always One God, to whom be power and glory, majesty and dominion now and in all eternity. Amen.

Wednesday, 8 June 2022

'Thou the anointing Spirit art': a sermon for the Jubilee on the Day of Pentecost

 

‘Zadok the priest, and Nathan the prophet, anointed Solomon king.

And all the people rejoiced.

Alleluia. Amen.’

 

That text has been used at coronations for centuries and is immortalised in Handel’s setting of it sung just now. Handel’s music even inspired the UEFA Champion’s League anthem, composed by a local Croydon boy, the composer and former pupil at Trinity School, Tony Britten.

 

But the inspiration we look to this evening is in reflecting on 70 years of the Queen’s Christian service when Elizabeth II was crowned, and anointed with sacred oil, in Westminster Abbey in 1953, following her Accession to the throne 70 years ago this year.

 

‘Geoffrey the archbishop, and Michael, bishop of Durham, anointed Elizabeth queen. And all the people rejoiced. Alleluia. Amen.’

 

And we still rejoice and give thanks for her as we look back over seventy years of her reign.

 

The example of Her Majesty the Queen these last 70 years has been one of exemplary service.

 

Without doubt she has committed herself body, mind and spirit to the calling to which she was called. And she constantly refers us to her Christian faith as the source of the endurance and hope that we see in the tireless service she had offered, and continues to offer, to this nation and the Commonwealth.

 

And today there is a happy confluence of the celebration of the Queen’s Jubilee with the Day of Pentecost, Whitsunday, when we celebrate the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the Church.

 

One of the words associated with the Holy Spirit and with coronation is this word, ‘anointing’. As an ancient hymn to the Holy Spirit puts it:

 

Thou the anointing Spirit art,

who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart.

 

On a practical level anointing is the act of pouring or smearing oil - we’re thinking olive oil here - onto a person’s body.

 

In Christian and biblical practice, such as the anointing of King Solomon, this outward anointing is on the head, the hands or the chest.

 

But the inward anointing is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is the anointing of cleansing and preparation, of blessing, empowerment and joy. Anointing, outward and inner, strengthens and equips.

 

This power of anointing flows from the Holy Spirit in the name of the Anointed One, Jesus Christ. Anointed One in Hebrew is ‘Mesach’ משיח from which we get the English word, ‘Messiah’. Anointed One in Greek is Christos, from which we get the word ‘Christ’.

 

The one anointed is touched by Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

On Maundy Thursday, at what is known as the Chrism Mass, the Bishop blesses three oils for use in the church. The Oil of Catechumens; the Oil of the Sick and the Oil of Chrism.

 

Oil of the Catechumens is pure olive oil.  To prepare a candidate for baptism they are anointed with this sacred oil. The sign of the cross is marked on their heads as they are told to fight valiantly against the world, the flesh and the devil. This echoes the wrestlers of ancient times who would anoint the bodies with oil so that the opponent could not get a grip on them and defeat them.  This anointing is to help the baptised to ward off evil, avoid temptation and possess the faith necessary to carry the cross of Christ throughout life.

 

Oil of the Sick is also pure olive oil. For this anointing the priest lays hands on the person who is unwell, prays and anoints the person by smearing the oil in the form of a cross on the forehead and hands.

 

Through this sacrament, God gives the sick person grace and strength to bear the illness or infirmity. And it is not unknown that the power of this anointing brings spiritual, emotional and even physical healing.

 

The third oil, holy chrism oil, is olive oil mixed with balsam. The oil symbolizes strength, and the fragrant balsam represents the “aroma of Christ” (2 Cor 2:15). Anointing with chrism oil signifies the gift of the Holy Spirit. So much so that in the act of blessing this oil the Bishop breathes gently upon it as well as speaking words over it.

 

The holy chrism oil is used to consecrate someone or something to God’s service.

 

It is used when people are confirmed as the bishop traces the Sign of the Cross with chrism oil on the forehead of the one being confirmed and, using the person’s Christian name, says, “be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

 

It is during the ordination of a priest and the consecration of a bishop. It is the anointing oil used in the consecration of a church and the blessing of an altar.

 

It is the Oil of Chrism that was used to anoint Her Majesty the Queen at the Coronation.

 

For the Queen her royal anointing equipped her for royal service. That is a task given only to her. That anointing is the source of her strength and wisdom, for it imparts the gift of the anointing Holy Spirit of God upon her. So sacred is this act that there is no photograph or film of it.

 

With the Queen, who is a fellow Christian - albeit she is Supreme Governor of our Church – we share in the life of the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ. And that is an expression of the gifts of the Holy Spirit that equip us all to different strengths and talents so we all make up the diversity and strength of the One Body of Christ.

 

Solomon, who was anointed king by Zadok and Nathan, was given the opportunity by God to name whatever he wanted as king. He asked for the gift of wisdom, that wisdom of which we heard in our first reading from the Book of Proverbs, as Divine Wisdom says :

 

I have good advice and sound wisdom;

   I have insight, I have strength.

By me kings reign,

   and rulers decree what is just;

by me rulers rule,

   and nobles, all who govern rightly. Proverbs 8.1-16

 

Wisdom is primarily a gift of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who helps us see that the knowledge and love of God is the beginning of wisdom. We see in Elizabeth II, our sister in Christ and our Queen, someone who has rooted her life of royal service in the knowledge and love of God, and who in turn has received the grace, strength and wisdom of one anointed by that same Spirit.

 

At coronation the Queen was anointed with holy Chrism Oil on her head, throat and hands so that she would hold Christ always in mind, breathe in the Holy Spirit of God and serve his people. All this she does as someone, like you and me, sharing the call to be part of the life of the Jesus Christ, so that together with her we will glimpse what our second reading from the Book of Revelation promised:

 

‘But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in [the Holy City], and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads’. Revelation 22.4

 

May God bless the Queen, and each one of us, and may the Holy Spirit rest upon her now and in the time to come.

Pentecost and Jubilee

Preached at the Parish Eucharist at Croydon Minster, 5th June 2022


Acts 2:1-21; They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak

Romans 8:14-17; The Spirit bears witness that we are children of God

John 14:8-17, 25-27 The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, will teach you all things

 

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When the date of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations was announced some while back I looked at the calendar and worried it would clash unhelpfully with today’s celebration of Pentecost.

 

Why would I worry?

 

Well, the Day of Pentecost, along with Christmas, Easter and Ascension Days, is one of the biggest festivals of the Church. If it was overshadowed by another occasion, however significant like the Platinum Jubilee, might we be in danger of placing the Queen above the mysteries of God?

 

The flip side is that some people may come to church today to thank God for the Queen’s seventy year reign and wonder what all this talk about the Holy Spirit is!

 

At the heart of my conundrum was this: do we emphasise the Church’s celebration or our national celebration?

 

Happily, it is not an ‘either/or’ day. This Day of Pentecost is a Jubilee day!

 

There is good Biblical precedent for saying that.

 

The term Pentecost comes from the Greek Πεντηκοστή (Pentēkostē) meaning "fiftieth". It refers to the Jewish festival of Shavuot celebrated on the fiftieth day after Passover. It is also known as the "Feast of Weeks" and the "Feast of 50 days" in rabbinic tradition.

 

The Christian Day of Pentecost comes fifty days after the Christian Passover of Easter is celebrated.

 

Likewise, in the Bible, a jubilee is a special year of remission of sins and universal pardon. In Leviticus, a jubilee year (Hebrew: יובלāl) is mentioned to occur every 50th year; during which slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven, property restored to rightful ownership: in other words, the mercies of God would be particularly manifest.[1]

 

The Church has proclaimed jubilees for special occasions throughout the centuries from around the 13th century. The most recent ‘Great Jubilee’ was that of the beginning of the third millennium of Christianity in 2000.

 

The term Jubilee has also been applied to a ‘Holy Year’ which marks a special celebration of God’s mercy.

 

That is how, in our national life, we have come to refer to a jubilee as a special year of celebration of a significant event, hence the jubilee of a monarch. Though of course the Queen has exceeded a mere fifty years on the throne!

 

The Day of Pentecost is always a jubilee of fifty days from Passover, and the feature of this jubilee is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

 

It is this Spirit that is poured out upon the Apostles on the Day of Pentecost to equip them to be witnesses to the love of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. The nations represented by the people who spoke different languages gathered in Jerusalem, that first Pentecost, point to this.

 

Indeed, in time the Holy Spirit drove the disciples out from Jerusalem, a geographical backwater really, through the nations, to the very heart of the most dominant Empire the world had hitherto known, to Rome. And in time, through the Holy Spirit, the way of Jesus Christ became sovereign even in the Roman Empire.

 

That is a feature of the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit can equip us to do that which is beyond our human capacities and horizons. That is why we can also talk about the intimacy of the Holy Spirit, in what we call our spirit-ual life.

 

The Holy Spirits renews, equips and anoints us to service.

 

In Christian tradition at baptism each of us – through water and the Spirit – are equipped to shape our lives after the example, and intimately united with Jesus Christ.

 

At baptism, in the Church’s teaching, you are anointed as prophet, priest and king.

 

Each Christian is anointed with oil signifying the Spirit, the Comforter, to speak in the name of Jesus – the prophet; to offer spiritual sacrifices in union with Jesus – the priest; and to reign in love and service in the church – the king.

 

At a baptism the new Christian is anointed. At ordination the new priest is anointed. At Coronation the new monarch is anointed.

 

Anointing gives us the capacity to go beyond ourselves. Think of it like this. I have a new electric bike. I pedal hard, but can only go so far up a hill without being exhausted. The battery gives me power to accomplish what I can’t do totally on my own.

 

It’s a bit of a crass example, but the Holy Spirit is the power of God in your life the enables you to go beyond yourself and the limitations of body, mind and spirit.

 

That is why the sovereign is anointed at the Coronation. It gives an ordinary person an extraordinary capacity to draw on. And hasn’t the Queen drawn on that in her life.

 

The Queen’s life of service is an anointed function of her Christian calling. St Paul describes how we all have a variety of callings, and are equipped by the Holy Spirit to carry them out. The Queen, of all people, knows, and has spoken powerfully about the way in which her life is inspired by the life, death and teaching of Jesus Christ; she knows this through the Holy Spirit’s wisdom and insight.

 

The wonderful thing is that since the Day of Pentecost humanity has lived in a perpetual Jubilee – the time of the Lord’s favour, the time of the Church.

 

As we rightly give thanks to God for the Queen in her Christian service as Sovereign of this United Kingdom, Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Head of the Commonwealth, with all its nations and languages, may we also reflect on the movement of the Holy Spirit within each one of us to draw us closer to the inner life of God, to renew and refresh our lives and equip.

 

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the heart of the Queen and all your people, and kindle in us the fire of your love.



[1] “You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the day of atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces.” Leviticus 25.8-13

Sunday, 22 May 2022

Christ at home in us; and we in him

Acts of the Apostles 16.9-15 If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home

Revelation 21.10; 22-22.5 He showed me the holy city coming down out of heaven

John 14.23-29 A peace the world cannot give is my gift to you

 

‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home’ (Acts 16.15)

 

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I wonder what you understand by the word ‘home’? I wonder if it is a place or a feeling, if it’s near or far away? Is it a place of safety and security or of anxiety and loneliness? Is it a place of hospitality and invitation or a refuge from the world and other people? It may be some or all of those things. Is your home where your heart is?

 

Let’s ponder ‘home’ in relation to the Gospel in which Jesus promises that, in him, God will make his home with us, and also to the fascinating figure of Lydia, whose heart is opened to the Lord, such that Christ can make his home in her life and who invites St Paul into her home.

 

First there is some theological work to do! That is to say, what can we say of ‘home’ in relation to the nature of God? What St John’s Gospel powerfully reveals is that God is at home in God’s own-self. God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - the Blessed Trinity, is entirely at home in itself without need or lack. There is no dissension or rivalry in this perfect relationship of love.

 

It is from ‘home’ in God, from the bosom of the Father, that the Eternal Word finds a home in human flesh, as one of us: Jesus Christ.

 

‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1.14). Jesus Christ finds a home with us and in us; literally in Nazareth, with his mother, Mary, and Joseph, and now as the glorified Lord made known in the Sacraments and scriptures.

 

The promise of today’s gospel reading, Jesus says, is that ‘those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them’ (John 14.23).

 

Lydia says to St Paul, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home’. That is an act of hospitality, she wants to hear more from Paul. She wants to know more and more about Jesus Christ, the one she has invited into her life. God will make his home with her.

 

Lydia’s story is a beautiful one. Lydia was clearly a successful business woman in her own right, a dealer in the very pricey purple cloth that her ‘home’ town of Thyatira was known for. She was some 400 miles away from home being in Philippi.

 

She was a worshipper of God, but not in a formed or coherent way. Like so many people today she had a deep awareness of God’s life and presence but had not connected that with Jesus Christ, with the Church or with the intimacy or relating to God that baptism brings.

 

So Lydia had sought out a place where she could pray: a river. Others gathered there too. There they would go to pray, perhaps to water gods and spirits. It sounds a bit new agey. But the impulse is one of spiritual desire and refreshment. After all, John the Baptist baptised people in a river; he baptised Jesus in that River, the Jordan.

 

There is something about flowing water that has a deep spiritual root. It is not out of the question that this very church built, as it is, by a river – albeit covered up now – was a pagan site before hallowed by the church and dedicated to the saint who baptised in a river. Perhaps our co-patron should be St Lydia, she who, with her whole household, was baptised in a river by which she had prayed to other gods, now finding her home with the Living God: ‘the river of the water of life’ (Revelation 22.1).

 

Through the Holy Spirit, St Paul instinctively knew where to go to find people who might be open to the message of eternal life in Christ that he brought, be that amongst philosophers in the Aeropagus of Athens or by this river in Philippi. And Lydia was open to hearing Paul’s preaching: ‘the Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul’. Lydia is the first documented convert in Europe – as an aside, Asia Minor and Africa has earlier converts!

 

Christianity is not ultimately about following a moral code, or ‘connecting with our ‘spiritual’ side by rivers or with crystals. It’s not a self-help guide with a bit of whacky God language added on. It is about union with God, through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit; it is about finding our home in the life of the Eternal God. The heart of the Eucharist is Holy Communion. Communion is about unification, participation, being at home in God.

 

It is that home that Lydia found. And from that discovery comes an invitation: ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home’. She echoes the powerful words of the centurion to Christ, on which we base our response to the Invitation to Holy Communion: ‘Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed’ (Matthew 8.8 and the Roman Missal).

 

God is at home with you and me. Jesus’ mission is to bring the fullness of God to the world and save us such that we can go where he goes, back into the loving heart of the Father.

 

Scripture shows consistently that God desires that we find our home in God’s love and presence. That is none other than what we call ‘eternal life’, ‘life in all its abundance’ (John 10.10). This promise is further laid out in the book of Revelation, our second reading, where renewed life and renewed creation is the home of God and mortals.

 

It is the work of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, who brings us to this point of Holy Communion, and bringing to remembrance (πομνήσει) makes Christ present in our midst to find his home in our bodies: flesh, mind and spirit.

 

May we ever find our home in Christ, and he in us.

 

Thursday, 19 May 2022

Lions' dens and empty tombs: an Evensong sermon

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.

 

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Throughout the scriptures are laid, as it were, trails of crumbs for us to follow, and which point us to mysteries yet to be revealed and to be fulfilled. The trail takes us to an open tomb, from which life emanates.

 

So our trail tonight is the resurrection.

 

We see the pointers to resurrection in the Exodus and also in the prophets:  for instance, in Hosea ‘after two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up that we may live before him’ (Hosea 6.2); in Jonah ‘But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.’ (Jonah 1.17).

 

In the New Testament, the account of the Raising of Lazarus in John 11, who has been in the tomb four days, is a trailer for Jesus’ resurrection power, as Jesus said to Martha, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ (John 11.25, 26)

 

And tonight, we have a resurrection trailer in the Book of the Prophet Daniel. Daniel’s plight is familiar to all who seek to practice their faith in authoritarian settings. Daniel the Jewish exile in Babylon is forbidden with his fellow exiles to pray freely and, by sneaky means, Daniel’s enemies trick the king into issuing an edict that traps Daniel.

 

And as the story goes the king, with a heavy heart, throws Daniel to the lions. There is a foreshadowing of the Christians, the murdered martyrs, who the Romans threw to the lions as a public spectacle in the Colosseum in Rome, Carthage and around the Empire.

 

Tyrants do not like people who pray; secular and atheistic cultures do not like people who look beyond to things eternal (that’s true of the Romans, Stalinism, Nazism).

 

In scripture, as in much great literature, lions symbolise power. To describe Samson’s great strength one of the stories about him is that he wrestled and killed a lion ( Judges 14:5-6). From that incident comes something sweet. As an aside, the lion is the emblem of St Mark the Evangelist, the author of the gospel reading this evening: through his words he speaks of the power of the resurrection. It’s little wonder C.S. Lewis represents the messianic figure of Aslan as a lion.

 

The thread that weaves together the account of Daniel, the raising of Lazarus already referred to, and the arrival of the myrrh bearing women, in Sy Mark’s gospel, is the moment of arrival and wonder and the revelation of life.

 

The first moment of arrival and wonder is in the book of Daniel when we read, ‘Then, at break of day, king Darius got up and hurried to the den of lions’ (Daniel 6.19).

He went hoping, but not really expecting, that Daniel’s God, the God of Israel, the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, had spared him from the lions: ‘When he came near the den where Daniel was, he cried out anxiously to Daniel, ‘O Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God whom you faithfully serve been able to deliver you from the lions?’ (Daniel 6.20). (There’s a twist in the narrative, the powerful king, who threw Daniel to the lions’ den for praying to God, not himself pleads for God to save Daniel). At the threshold of the lions’ den Darius sees the power of Daniel’s God – our God – who has preserved him from death.

 

The second moment of arrival and wonder in the raising of Lazarus:

 

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. (John 11.38-42)

 

Jesus went to Lazarus’ tomb knowing and expecting that a great work of power would be revealed to the sceptical world. At the threshold of Lazarus’ tomb he who was dead now lives, although as a mortal he will die again.

 

The third moment of arrival and wonder as the three myrrh bearing women – holy Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome:

 

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. (Mark 16.1-6).

 

The women came to the tomb not knowing what to expect, not saying anything, but simply to anoint the body that was dead, only to find an empty place from which flowed life and power that now filled the whole world.

 

In all places where we arrive, may we always be alert to the wonder of the signs of resurrection life.

 

For we stand at the threshold of life in all its abundance.

Staying at the supper

Acts 11.1-18 God shows no partiality

Revelation 21.1-6 A vision of the heavenly Jerusalem, the bride of the Lamb

John 13.31-35 in the Son of Man, God has been glorified

 

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Our gospel reading opened with some strange words, ‘during the supper, when Judas had gone out…’ (John 13.31).

 

They sound almost incidental, but they are deeply significant.

 

Just before this verse Judas is unmasked as the one who will betray Jesus. St John, the author, notes, ‘And it was night’ (John 13.30b).

 

Judas steps away from the intimacy of the supper because he has chosen his own path, which does not involve Jesus and does not involve his companion disciples.

 

Judas has chosen to cut himself off.

 

And as he walks out into the darkness of the night he is choosing to walk from life to death and to walk away from God’s abundance into the scarcity of shut down horizons, narrowness and betrayal of a friend.

 

When we make the ‘Judas move’ we are placing ourselves at the heart of our own drama – as one theologian calls it, our ‘ego-drama’.

 

In the ego-drama we are building all our sense of reality around our own imaginations, everything is on our own terms and not about God or neighbour. All becomes self-defeating and spirals downwards into pointlessness, where faith, hope and love is scarce to the point of non-existent.

 

When we make the ‘Jesus move’ we place ourselves in what the same theologian calls the Theo-drama, in other words, the God drama, where our point of reference is the way of faith and hope and love, of abundant life lived in all its fullness.

 

When we make the ‘Jesus move’ we step out into the light disentangled from the power games and manipulations of the world. In the light we can see more clearly.

 

The remarkable thing is that we are free to make the move we desire.

 

Such is God’s abundant love that he risks even our move into the night, as with Judas, the path trodden by Adam and all humanity.

 

But such is God’s love that the glorification of human flesh and wills is possible through a Saviour.

 

We are not locked into Adam’s refusal of God, but invited into Jesus’ total acceptance of God, and, in that move, we share in the glorification of the Son of Man.

 

Light or darkness, life or death, abundance or scarcity? We are given that choice.

 

There are seductive easy choices, following the whispers of the world: ‘you can have your cake and eat it’; ‘don’t commit, keep your options open: a better offer may come along’. That is so destructive in our relationships with other people and with God.

 

After all, Judas wanted what Jesus offered, but only on his own terms.

 

So often we say, ‘I will do what my heart dictates’ or we’re told ‘follow your heart’. A wonderful German Abbess I read recently debunks that ‘do it your way’ mentality.

 

Mother Christiana [Reemts, abbess of Mariendonk] says, ‘I hold it to be quite false’.

 

She explained what she meant by pointing out what we know from experience and what Jeremiah pointed out almost cruelly: ‘The human heart is deceitful above all things’ (Jeremiah 17.9).

 

Our heart is not an infallible compass; it is subject to many temptations, tensions, and trends. Before it can guide us reliably, it must be oriented and, when necessary, healed. The great Christian task is ‘to let the heart be transformed by God’s Word — then to listen to this transformed heart’. (my italics).

 

Judas sadly followed his unhealed, untransformed heart. It was a wayward compass into his ego-drama and away from the intimacy of the supper with Christ.

 

The supper is the place of the Theo-drama, the God-drama, where Christ shares with us his life (in broken bread) and death (in poured out wine), so that we share in his life, death and resurrection. Only in the intimacy of the mystical supper do we hear the ‘new commandment’, to love as he first loved us.

 

The gospel today invites us to stay at the supper, to be present with Jesus and with his disciples.

 

The mystical supper is an eternal reality perpetuated in the Eucharist.

 

This is where we come, in the company of one another, to have the compass of our hearts set aright in the Theo-drama, the outworking of God’s light and life and love in the world.

 

As St Paul says, ‘for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness’ (1 Thessalonians 5.5)

 

Jesus said, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’. To say ‘I did it my way’, or to build a ‘truth’ of my own imagining, or to seek life amputated from Christ and his Church, is the way of the ego-drama, making myself the centre of my own reality and not of God’s.

 

To be a saint, to be a child of the light and of the day, is to sing ‘I did it Christ’s way’

 

May we never prefer the isolation, darkness and chill of sin but always prefer the festivity, intimacy and warmth of the sacred meal where we receive the life of Christ and where we are formed as disciples marked out by love for one another.

Wednesday, 20 April 2022

'No longer contained' An Easter Sermon

 Acts 10.34-43 ‘We have eaten and drunk with him after his resurrection’

 

1 Corinthians 15.19-26 Christ is the first-fruits of those who have died

 

John 20.1-18 He must rise from the dead

 

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Alleluia. Christ is risen.

 

This is the Christian proclamation par excellence!  Jesus Christ - truly God, truly human, born of the Virgin Mary – this Jesus, who died upon the cross and was buried is now alive, raised by the Father from the dead.

 

Christ is risen.

 

It lies at the heart of what we call ‘the mystery of faith’, a mystery whose depths we plumb in these days of Easter: ‘Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again’.

 

And as St Paul reflected in his first letter to the Corinthians, this is not an abstract idea. Resurrection is so much more than a general concept of new life, the cycle of birth and death or even the transformation of caterpillar, to chrysalis, to butterfly: those things of nature, beautiful as they are, point to, but are not, resurrection. Resurrection depends on a body, a body that was dead now alive.

 

Resurrection is shocking and in one sense against nature.

 

And it is wholly of God: ‘this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes’, says the psalm (Ps 118.23).  

 

Resurrection is found in an encounter with the body of Jesus Christ made visible in the concrete, in person, embodied community of faith he draws around him to live his Risen Life and through the sacraments that body, the Church, celebrates.

 

That body, our first brothers and sisters in the church, made their way to the tomb. They did not find the bloodied corpse, but they found the tomb empty.

 

Mary Magdalene had gone to pay her respects at the tomb after Jesus’ brutal death, and instead finds herself responding to the reality which you and I are called to respond to today and, after her example, to pass on to others today, that Jesus Christ is not constrained by death, darkness and despair but is alive and risen.

 

There it is. Christ has died. Christ is risen.

The gospel passage for today paints a picture of urgency, of spreading the news, of bewilderment and of encounter.

 

Urgency. Mary arrives at the tomb so early in the morning that it was still dark. Such was her urgent desire to be near the body of her Lord and Teacher. On finding the tomb empty she urgently ran to tell Simon Peter and the beloved disciple. They in turn ran urgently to the tomb.

 

There is an urgency to the Christian life: this matters!

 

We see that urgency in those new Christians who have an intense and urgent appetite for Christ and in those lifelong Christians are renewed by a deep sense of assurance and hope. We see that urgency for Christ in the vibrant global Church.

 

Rekindling our urgent desire for the resurrection faith will be transformative for the life of the Church in England, where too often zeal flags in the face of a remote relationship with the gospel and with Jesus Christ.

 

Spread the news! With urgency comes a desire to hand this on; to spread the news. This news can’t be bottled up. Mary Magdalene had to go and tell. She became, in Pope Gregory the Great’s wonderful phrase, ‘the apostle to the Apostles’. Mary is sent to tell the ones who will in turn go and tell the whole world, as Peter says in the Acts of the Apostles..

 

Someone told you once of Jesus Christ. Perhaps it was a parent, a grandparent, godparent or friend. However you were told you are now to go and tell. Mary told two people, if you told two people of the power of faith in Jesus Christ and demonstrated in your life that it is life-giving and urgent, then the church here in this land would grow as it does in many parts of the world. People are going and telling in countries all around the world, which is why Christianity continues to grow.

 

And don’t tell a bland, dull, tepid, inoffensive account of this – that’s not the Gospel - speak of the vibrant, urgent life that comes from an encounter with the Living God in Jesus Christ.

 

Bewilderment. At the same time, we have to be frank; this is bewildering. It is not a superficial gospel we tell.

 

Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the Risen Lord was bewildering and disorientating. It took time for her to become aware of what was going on.

 

So many people look at the resurrection and are too bewildered to go further. They walk away. Mary was ready to stay, to pause, to ponder, to ask the deeper questions in her encounter with the Risen Lord.

 

That is the beginnings of a life of prayer and mystical union with Christ. And from that Mary realised that her life had to be re-ordered in relation to who Jesus Christ is. She couldn’t project her own desires onto him, be they romantic, deluded or idolising. She had to come to see him as he really was, stripping away the preconceptions she wanted to hold on to.

 

And again, reflecting on the complexity, she had to go and tell.

 

So the Easter Proclamation is not superficial: it is deep, it is urgent, bewildering, yet life giving. It has had, and still has, the capacity to turn the world upside down, human lives upside down, to reorient us to God, our Maker and our Redeemer,

 

So let us roll the stone away from our eyes and hearts, see the Crucified and Risen Lord and go, tell the Good News. Alleluia.