Sunday, 17 January 2021

'Come & See'

 First preached at Croydon Minster on Sunday 17 January, 2021. Gospel reading John 1.43-end


‘You will see greater things than these’ (John 1.50b)

 

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St John’s gospel is wonderful! It’s full of connections, links and allusions. It begins with everything distilled into 18 pregnant verses, known as the Prologue, that are fleshed out through the next 21 chapters.

 

Take today’s gospel reading. Philip and Nathanael are invited by Jesus to see so much more than they could believe possible about themselves, God and the ways of heaven.

 

A couple of verses of the Prologue seem to encapsulate Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus:

 

‘The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.’ (John 1.17-18)

 

As Jesus said, Nathanael was an exemplary Israelite, and knew the law given through Moses (cf John 1.47). He had never seen God – no one ever had - but what Philip, Nathanael and we will see – and now have seen - is grace and truth in the face of Jesus Christ.

 

When they meet, Nathanael discovers that Jesus had already seen and known him. Seeing Nathanael goes beyond spotting him by a fig tree; this is deep knowing.

 

Nathanael is amazed, ‘How did you come to know me?’ The answer was given in our psalm this morning:

 

‘O LORD, thou hast searched me out and known me : thou knowest my down-sitting and mine up-rising, thou understandest my thoughts long before’ (Psalm 139.1).

 

Jesus beholds him and knows him; he beholds you and knows you, because in beholding you, he loves you.

 

And beholding, knowing and loving you he invites you to ‘come and see; taste and see’.

 

‘It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.’

 

Come and behold; come, feast your eyes, and you will see even greater things than these - says Christ, the Bread of Life - and in knowing me, and feasting at my table, I will open to you the very heavens, the very depths of the mystery of God full of grace and truth.

 

Sunday, 10 January 2021

'This is the Christ' A homily for the Baptism of Christ

 First preached as a homily at Croydon Minster 10th January 2021.


‘This is the Christ, the Chosen of God,

the one who will bring healing to the nations’

(Antiphon to the Benedictus in Epiphany, Common Worship: Daily Prayer)

 

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‘Behold!’ - says John the Baptist – look, feast your eyes: this is the Christ.

 

Today, at the river, John fulfils his title and baptises Jesus in the waters.

 

In water - the signifier of life, creation and renewal - is where your rebirth, and mine, takes place.

 

Baptism washes us clean from sin and we are born into the life of Christ. So Jesus does not need baptism from John, except to reveal himself to us, to make the waters holy and to promise abundant life.

 

Here is the life of the Blessed Trinity. The Father-Creator speaks; the Spirit descends - as at the creation – and the Word, from the beginning, in flesh stands in our midst.

 

The divine life is seen on earth so that human life may be transformed and renewed, reflecting the ways of heaven which is now torn open so that we can see God’s ways, the ways of heaven.

 

Life in Christ means that we are set on fire with faith, hope and love which flows from God, within and amongst us, spilling out into the world which is already his. His grace flowing before us transforms, renews and heals his distorted and disfigured creation.

 

The Baptism of Christ reveals that if anyone is in Christ there is New Creation (cf 2 Corinthians 5.17).

 

The light of the first day of the Creation shines out today, because ‘from sunrise to sunset this day is holy, for Christ has risen from the tomb and scattered the darkness of death with light that will not fade’ (Preface for Sundays in Ordinary Time, Common Worship).

 

And now, heaven is torn open, bread is broken, hands outstretched and Christ’s body presented to us afresh so that again we are transformed, renewed and recreated in his love.

Sunday, 3 January 2021

A mystery revealed and unfolded: an Epiphany homily

 A sermon preached at Croydon Minster for the feast of the Epiphany.

‘Lift up your eyes and look around…then shall you see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice…’

(cf Isaiah 60.4)

 

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The scene is complete.

 

Shepherds and Magi have been drawn together called by angels, led by a star and now adore.

 

They are safely in our crib, and we place ourselves - with them - before the manger throne of Christ in wonder and adoration, for God is made known in human flesh and we have seen his glory in the face of Jesus Christ.

 

The door of the Bethlehem stable, the door of this tabernacle, has opened to those who were not on the inside before, shepherds and Magi, you and me.

 

The shepherds represent those who not highly regarded but necessary to society all the same. They are part of the people of Israel, but on its fringes. They’re on the outside of the ‘in-crowd’.

 

The Magi represent people from all the nations, they have the allure of wealth and mystique, they are spiritual searchers. They’re on the inside of the outsiders!

 

Both, in their own way, transgress the boundaries of access to the God of Israel, just as God in Christ has taken our humanity so that we can cross into divinity.

 

That is the revelation, the manifestation, this is what the Epiphany is – Christ is made known to all people: Jew and Gentile; insider and outsider; near and far; familiar and stranger.

 

Up until the Epiphany the movement has been inwards, or centripetal, the presence of Christ attracting, drawing, sucking people in towards himself.

 

From now on Christ will be revealed in an outward movement, a centrifugal movement.

 

In his Baptism in the River Jordan, at the hands of John, there will be an epiphany; in the wedding feast at Cana he will be made known in the miraculous revelation of transforming love: an epiphany.

 

Mary, the Virgin Mother, is the thread that connects this inward/outward movement to Christ.

 

The star leads us, and the angels call us, in to adore ‘the child cradled on his mother’s lap’ (cf Matthew 2.11).

 

And then John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary point out to us who Jesus Christ is, out and about. As John puts it, ‘Behold, look, feast your eyes, this is the Lamb of God’. And Mary his Mother says, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’

 

We live this life too.

 

We are drawn in to this holy place with ‘angels and archangels and all the company of heaven’ to see, to taste, Christ the Bread of Life, to worship and adore, to offer ourselves, our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice to him.

 

And we go out to recognise him in the world he created and which he comes to renew, refresh and transform.

 

The mystery is unveiled to us, as it was to St Paul, so that with him we might ‘perceive the mystery of Christ’ (Ephesians 3.4)

 

Epiphany is about God’s initiative to make himself known - within the temple and in his world – and for us to recognise the Mystery and adore, wherever we encounter him, as Isaiah says, ‘lift up your eyes and look around…then shall you see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice…’ (cf Isaiah 60.4)

 

 

 

 

Sunday, 20 December 2020

'Perplexity, pondering, presence, power & possibility: Mary & the Angel - a tale for our times

 

First preached as an extempore homily at Croydon Minster and written down afterwards (hence discrepancies in what the congregation may have heard and what I have now written!). The readings were, 2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16 and Luke 1.26-38.

 

‘Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word’.

(Luke 1.38)

 

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The encounter of Mary and the Archangel Gabriel is timeless and enduring. It’s a scene portrayed in art and music.

 

Yet what this young woman is being asked is earth shattering, reputation crushing and terrifying. If social media was around at that time Mary was going to be exposed to trolling and shaming because she has transgressed the norms of society and Law of Moses: unmarried and pregnant.

 

This passage of St Luke’s gospel (1.26-38) is one that could easily be brushed aside with a flippant, ‘yeah, heard this one before’. It’s good carol service fodder.

 

But it repays deep attention for these is so much going on here, as our parish Lectio Divina group discovered last week. Slowly chewing over its words brings out many deep insights.

 

It is clear that this reading speaks on different levels. There is the perplexity and response of Mary which mirrors the response any one of us could make to the call of God, and it maps how we might reflect on the dark times we are currently in. In short it offers hope, Christian hope.

 

There were five things that really struck me in this reading. They all begin with ‘p’ – I like the alliteration! - and can be remembered on the fingers of one hand.

 

1.      perplexity

2.      pondering

3.      power

4.      presence

5.      possibility

 

Perplexity

Mary’s response to the angel is perplexity (1.29a). It’s little wonder. What she is being asked comes out of a ‘clear blue sky’. She is perplexed by it. The call of God is often perplexing.

 

Perplexity is an appropriate word for our times. Everything is perplexing. Why is such and such allowed in this Tier and not that? I have waited since March to see my family and/or friends and now I can’t it is so perplexing for us.

 

Pondering

Mary’s response to perplexity is not panic (another word beginning with ‘p’) but pondering (1.29b). Mary is a great exemplar of pondering in response to major events: ‘she pondered all these things in her heart’ (Luke 2.51). Another word for pondering is prayer.

 

The point of prayer in perplexity is not simply a desperate plea to be lifted out of perplexity, although that is a legitimate prayer, it is also a ‘casting our cares upon God’. It is resting, nestling in the One to of whom we say ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble’ (Psalm 46.1)

 

Out of her pondering Mary trusts the call, perplexing though it is. In prayer we entrust ourselves to God’s care and mercy.

 

Presence

This is the hinge that swings us from our perplexity. God promises presence (not presents!).

 

As he promised in the first reading from the Second Book of Samuel God promises to rest, to nestle amongst his people. This presence is not restricted to a house of cedar but is conceived in Mary’s womb and available to all humanity. That is incarnation. Nestled in her womb God could not be closer to Mary.

 

And, remember too, in another classic reading from a carol service, the (same) angel promises that the child to be born will be named ‘Emmanuel, which means “God is with us”’ (Matthew 1.23).

 

God is with us in adversity. God, in Christ, is with us in these dark, desolate times.

 

Power

Mary is told that the power of the Most High will overshadow her and we see the power of Mary to embrace what God asks of her. She is not a victim of God or of circumstance, she is an empowered woman defying convention to honour God’s call. How impressive!

 

This power, what the gospel calls dunamis, from which we get the word ‘dynamic’, this power is God’s power to change and transform. Mary the simple girl of Nazareth is transformed into the Bearer, the Mother of God.

 

When  God is present power is bestowed such that we can become the person calls us to be. And it is this power that makes all things possible.

 

Possibility

How can this be? This is God’s power. The creative power of God that brought life into being, and you and me into existence, makes all things possible. What is desolate becomes inhabited, what is empty is filled, Mary is told to look at Elizabeth’s life, and we look at Mary’s life.

 

The human body, the body of this woman, receives and gives a home to the full presence of God, the creator, the maker of possibilities.

 

Perplexity then is a feature of human existence: don’t we know that at the moment? We can’t eradicate it, but it can be transformed. After Mary’s example, we begin in pondering and prayer. And the presence of Christ unleashes the power of the Most High to make new possibility of who we are and who we can be.

 

Receiving this presence, power and possibility is open to us daily in the Eucharist, where Christ comes to dwell in our own bodies in bread and wine. That sends us out to proclaim God’s presence in the world and assure all people that we are not alone, because of Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God is with us.

Tuesday, 15 December 2020

Incarnation: not a 'big idea'

Preached at the Community Carol Service at Croydon Minster 13.12.20 . See Luke 1.26-38


‘And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth’ (John 1.14)

 

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The Incarnation is what you could call Christianity’s ‘Big Idea’.

 

The ‘Big Idea’ is actually not an idea at all. It is not an idea, if that’s something dreamed up in the human mind, the Incarnation’s origins are deep in the generative will of God.

 

And it is not a ‘thought’ that only exists in the mind: it is utterly embodied. So, it is not a thought or idea at all! It’s entirely reliant on human bodies.

 

Incarnation, not ideas about God and who Jesus Christ is, but the en-fleshed, embodied presence of God, is at the very heart of Christmas. It is the generator of Catholic Christian faith.[1]

 

Incarnation is the proposition that God has taken human flesh, caro in Latin, meaning ‘flesh’: from which we get the word ‘carnal’, things of the flesh; and ‘carnival’, a festival of eating flesh before the Lenten fast and ‘incarnation’ the en-fleshing of the Word of God.

 

Jesus Christ assumes human identity in the flesh, in person, whilst at the same time losing nothing of his divinity.

 

The Incarnation is the decisive hinge of the story of salvation, but it has a long back story.

 

That back story is what we have heard tonight. Quietly yet insistently declared through the prophets we hear of the one who will be born in Bethlehem as Micah declared; the one who will fill the world with splendour as Haggai announced; the one who springs from the line of Jesse; and as we heard the text set by Handel, ‘for, unto us a child is born’.

 

And tonight’s gospel is the hinge of the story of the New Creation. It begins with a woman’s ‘yes’. Through the angel Mary says, ‘Yes! Let it be to me according to your word.’ (Luke 1.38). This woman is indispensable to the Incarnation because her body is integral to it all. That is why Christmas features birth in all its blood and bodies and beauty.

 

It is Mary’s body, in her womb, that gives Jesus Christ his DNA, chromosomes and life blood. This is very fleshly.

 

The Eucharistic Prayer for the Annunciation puts it like this:

 

We give you thanks and praise

that the Virgin Mary heard with faith the message of the angel,

and by the power of your Holy Spirit

conceived and bore the Word made flesh.

From the warmth of her womb

to the stillness of the grave

he shared our life in human form.

 

Et verbum caro factum est habitavit in nobis: ‘And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ as St John puts it.

 

Christ comes down to us to raise us to the ways of heaven in human flesh: may we, like Mary, say ‘yes’ this this Christmas, and every day of our lives, so that God is not an idea but our life, our hope, our salvation.

 



[1] But, you might say, what about the crucifixion, the resurrection, the ascension? Sadly countless men and women have died hideously agonising deaths at the hands of oppressive regimes, even, like Jesus, by crucifixion. Others in the Scriptures were raised from the dead, for example, the son of the Widow of Nain (Luke 7.11-17) or Lazarus (John 11:38-53). Even ascension into heaven had happened before, notably the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 2:11). But that’s not the point. The significance of Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection and ascension is not whether or not they happened uniquely to Jesus Christ, but because he is the Incarnate Son of God.

Monday, 7 December 2020

A Sermon for the Solemnity of The Immaculate Conception of Mary

 

First preached as a sermon at St Michael & All Angels, Croydon, with members of the Cells of the Society of Our Lady of Walsingham in Croydon (St Alban’s, South Norwood, St Michael’s, Croydon & Croydon Minster). Readings: Genesis 3.9-15,20; Ephesians 1.3-6,11-12; Luke 1.26-38. 8th December 2019.

 

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The Immaculate Conception of Mary is a great gift to the Church and, indeed, to all humanity. It is the most optimistic of dogmas, because it says that by God’s grace human beings can be freed from the grip of sin, through our sharing in the life of the Word Made Flesh: Jesus Christ - Son of God, Son of Mary - the incarnate, crucified, risen and ascended Lord. This possibility of God’s grace first moved as Mary was conceived and knit together in the womb of her mother St Anne.

 

Our gospel reading today is St Luke’s account of the Annunciation, which is not to be confused with the Immaculate Conception of Mary, although it often is: the Annunciation is about Christ being incarnate within the womb of Mary, the unborn Saviour, the Word Made Flesh, resting in the immaculate shrine that is Mary’s body. And you will recall that when the pregnant Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy as the Mother of the Lord entered into her presence (Luke 1.39-45). That dance of the unborn John the Baptist echoes the unrestrained dance of David before the Ark of the Covenant in the Second Book of Samuel (2 Samuel 6, esp 6.14). David danced before the presence of God in the Ark of the Covenant; John dances before the presence of God, in Christ, in the shrine of Mary’s body.

 

The Immaculate Conception of Mary is about preparing the shrine in which the Christ will gestate and from which he will be born; for which all generations will call her blessed (Luke 1.48).

 

For some the Immaculate Conception makes them queasy. Isn’t it too much about Mary? Doesn’t it make out that somehow she’s not quite human, just a bit too perfect? Isn’t it all a bit Roman Catholic?

 

Too much about Mary? On one level it’s nothing to do with Mary! It’s about God’s grace, of which she is described as being full of: ‘Hail Mary, full of grace’, the archangel’s greeting. On another level it is everything to do with Mary; she is the person, the woman, chosen to be the mother of the Saviour.

 

The initiative is with God in choosing this particular daughter of Zion. That is why Mary is an exemplar of being a Christian, one who is open to the movements of God’s grace, saying yes, not no. After all, Eve – the mother of all the living, as her name means (Genesis 3.20) - was created without sin, placed in the Garden of Eden and yet, with her husband, said ‘no’ to God and ‘yes’ to the serpent. As we see in statues of Mary, the Immaculate Conception, she tramples down the serpent, reversing the transgression of Eve and bearing in her womb the New Adam.

 

Doesn’t it make out that somehow Mary’s not quite human, just a bit too perfect? There have been aspects of Marian devotion that have seemed to disconnect Mary from being human. This is often seen in art, but not in the New Testament or in the dogmas of the Church. Jesus was ‘born of a woman, born under the Law’ (Galatians 4.4); scripture and dogma insist on the humanity of Mary (otherwise how would we claim Christ’s humanity as well as his divinity?) Mary was a woman living in a broken world, but one who was freed by grace to act in a different way from Eve so that the bitter reality of human sin could be reversed.

 

What is more, the Immaculate Conception is not about Mary being conceived in a way that had no human agency. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception is not saying that the act of physical love is wrong, dirty or deficient. Anne and Joachim, as husband and wife, conceived their daughter in the way that any one of us is conceived; they slept together, they procreated, or whatever nice way we want to put it. Mary was human in her DNA; a woman in her chromosomes; and a child of God by grace.

 

Too Roman Catholic? The understanding that Mary, daughter of Anna and Joachim, was immaculately conceived is long held in Christianity, drawing from the gospels, of which more anon, and wider early tradition. Orthodox Christians don’t like defining things, but they still celebrate Mary’s conception as marking out her unique vocation to be the Theotokos, translated literally God-bearer, or Mother of God. Similarly, for Anglicans The Book of Common Prayer (1662) may not use the word ‘Immaculate’ but it still marks in the Calendar the observance of the ‘Conception of the BV Mary’ on 8th December each year, and that predates the Marian Dogma of 1854 in which Pope Pius IX defined the Immaculate Conception.

 

So there is an ecumenical consensus that Mary matters and that she is a pattern for Grace and Hope in Christ, as the document of that name from the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) put it in 2005. That document shows a remarkable convergence of Marian teaching - perhaps ‘more honoured in the breach than the observance’ - between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. We shouldn’t ignore that not all Anglicans would assent to ARCIC, and, we shouldn’t gloss over differences, but we could all agree, I hope, with Pope St John XXIII, that ‘the Madonna is not pleased when she is put above her Son’. ARCIC acknowledges that there are deep and important roots to what we celebrate, today, in the Immaculate Conception of Mary:

 

In view of her vocation to be the mother of the Holy One (Luke 1.35), we can affirm together that Christ’s redeeming work reached ‘back’ in Mary to the depths of her being, and to her earliest beginnings. This is not contrary to scripture, and can only be understood in the light of scripture. Roman Catholics can recognise this in what is affirmed by the dogma – namely ‘preserved from all stain of original sin’ and ‘from the first moment of her conception.’ (Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ: An Agreed Statement. ARCIC. p. 57-8)

 

So what? So this teaching is agreed by Anglicans, with Roman Catholics, to be consistent with scripture and understood in the light of scripture. Perhaps then we should ask, ‘so what’? What does this dogma of the Immaculate Conception mean for us today?

 

The Immaculate Conception of Mary is about salvation, preparation and the human body as the dwelling of the Most High. It tells us that the journey of holiness is precisely to restore in us the image and likeness of Christ.

 

Mary’s conception, without sin, points to us the possibility of the redemption of human flesh as the dwelling place of God. Indeed in the Mass we receive the Body of Christ into our bodies, such that they become shrines of God’s presence. We are, as it were, a monstrance, a vessel that carries Christ, reveals Christ to the world and imparts Christ’s blessing to all creation.

 

In this season of Advent may we be prepared to receive Christ afresh in his coming again in glory, as surely as he came into our midst born of Mary, Mother immaculate, Mother of the Saviour, Mother of God. Amen.

'Prepare the Way of the Lord' A Homily for Advent

 A sermon preached at Croydon Minster at the Service of Words and Music for Advent on the Second Sunday of Advent. Gospel Luke 1.5-25

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‘Prepare the way of the Lord. ‘

 

That is the title of this service of words and music for this great season of Advent.

 

It is also the opening message of St Mark’s gospel when the evangelist has announced ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ (Mark 1.1).

 

Having made that wonderful statement, Mark goes on to quote Isaiah to say that a messenger is being sent ‘who will prepare your way’ (1.2) and that a voice will cry out in the wilderness ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’ (1.3).

 

Advent is a time of preparation, of clearing out distractions, being ready, alert so that the Lord’s way may be prepared.

 

It calls for you and me to have a posture of preparation. So what’s your Advent posture of preparation?

 

Is it the preparation of the athlete: on your marks, get set…?

 

Is it the preparation of the artist: with the canvas tight, with paint on the brush ready to make the first strokes?

 

Is it the posture of the musician, the violinist with bow poised above the strings, or singer having taken a breath, ready for the conductor’s hands to summons the music from you?

 

That moment before the starting gun, before the paint is smeared on the canvas, before the conductor’s baton moves – that is Advent, a moment held over these four weeks, and it’s a moment of expectation of what is to come, or rather Who is to come.

 

We stand, as the poet Malcolm Guite reminds us, between two comings: the coming of Christ as incarnate, Word made flesh, born in Bethlehem and the coming of Christ in glory at the consummation of all things.

 

Preparation, expectation, attention, waiting, yearning is our response to God’s initiative to come amongst us.

 

This church of all churches, dedicated as we are to St John the Baptist, should be imbued with Advent character: expectant, attentive, prepared and proclaiming.

 

John is an intricate and complex character, born of the priestly line, and therefore by heredity a priest, and yet also standing clearly in the tradition of the prophets.

 

The priest offers sacrifice to God for the people; the prophet represents the voice and vision of God back to the people.

 

Priesthood and prophecy are not at odds: Isaiah’s own call came in the Temple as the presence of God, in incense, filled the house. Likewise, Jeremiah was a prophet born from a priestly line and yet called to be a prophet too.

 

‘Prepare the way of the Lord’ is a prophet’s cry; receiving and making present the Lord is the priestly task.

 

It’s in the Temple that Zechariah encounters Gabriel, the archangel, like the prophets before him, telling him of the birth of the one who will prepare the way of the Lord out in the wilderness. Zechariah, husband of Elizabeth, is John the Baptist’s father. This news struck Zechariah dumb!

 

After John’s birth Zechariah rejoiced and burst into song.

 

Usually in the evening at Evensong we hear the Song of Mary and of Simeon, the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. Tonight, this service will close with a canticle usually associated with the morning, the Benedictus, the Song of Zechariah, which speaks of preparation and what is to come:

 

And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,

for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,

To give his people knowledge of salvation

by the forgiveness of all their sins.

In the tender compassion of our God

the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,

and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 2.7-10)

 

May we be prepared to meet the one who comes.