Wednesday 29 May 2024

Holy worship; holy lives; holy sending: a Trinity Sunday sermon

‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God almighty. Heaven and earth are full of his glory. Hosanna in the Highest’.

 

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Today is Trinity Sunday, a day when we celebrate the holiness and essence of God.

 

We are not privy to the inner life of God, not least because God is beyond our understanding.

 

To claim to comprehend, ‘what is the breadth and length and height and depth of God’ (Ephesians 3.18) sounds like the ultimate blasphemy, it is like saying that you yourself are God.

 

Except that, the dimensions of God – wide, long, high and deep - and ‘the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge’ has been given to us, so that we may be filled with ‘all the fullness of God’. (Ephesians 3.19)

 

This mystery is transmitted to us by God himself, in the Word made Flesh, Jesus Christ and in the promptings and guidance and power of the Holy Spirit: it is transmitted so that we come to know the Father, the Holy God.

 

And we learn through the Word – Jesus Christ - that the heart of God is love; love that generates the beauty, goodness, truth and unity of God.

 

The US Bishop, Robert Barron, speaking of the Holy Spirit, opens up a beautiful image of the Trinity:

 

The Holy Spirit: the love that connects the Father and the Son. From all eternity the Father speaks his Word - that’s the Son. The Son is the perfect image of the Father - they share the same substance, the same essence. The Father and the Son look at one another and each sees utter perfection and therefore falls utterly in love. The love they breathe back and forth is the Holy Spirit, the Spiritus Sanctus, the holy breath. Sometimes the Tradition refers to the Spirit as the vinculum amoris, the chain of love, for that reason. The chain that connects Father and Son. This is the power [everyone] that the Father and Son together breathe out into the life of the Church.

Bishop Robert Barron

https://youtu.be/o_Mem8NxmTw?si=VKH77pvbPnsWWJZo

 

The holiness of God is holiness unconstrained; and this holiness spills out from the Holy Trinity into the world and into human lives.

 

Places and moments and people know this well.

 

In the Temple of Jerusalem, Isaiah, a priest of the Holy of holies of the Temple, becomes a prophet as he is called and commissioned by the holiness of God.

 

Heavenly bodies, the seraphs, call out to one another:

 

‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

the whole earth is full of his glory.’ (Isaiah 6.8)

 

The scene continues:

 

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’

 

The response to the holiness of God is awe and wonder, a sense of inadequacy.

 

So, on this Trinity Sunday, the celebration of the awe and wonder and love of God, let us briefly see what this holiness begins to look like in our lives, in worship, in daily life and in being sent.

 

We start in worship, where in the presence of the Holy One we take off, figuratively, the sandals from our feet, like Moses at the Burning Bush, for he is told he stands on holy ground. (Exodus 3.5)

 

Cast off the mundane and turn your heart in worship: the giving of our adoration and attention to God.

 

That’s why worship is not about human bonhomie or community building.

 

Rather we gather as a community seeking to become a holy people to be witness to the holiness, the love and awesomeness, of God in the world.

 

Holy worship is worship offered without our egos and wills and projections getting in the way.

 

Holy worship demands we set aside self and focus solely on God.

 

Holiness of life is similar.

 

A holy life is a life lived in love and service of others, in purity of body, mind and spirit.

 

But holiness of life means that rather than setting aside our own selves we ask the Holy Spirit to re-shape, re-direct and re-form our selves and our lives.

 

How we relate to other people and loving them for their own sake, not for our sake, as an instrument of gratification, is at the heart of that.

 

Using other people as a plaything is obvious in casual, fleeting and uncommitted relationships, or in relationships that have no intention of being fruitful and open to creation: it’s the ultimate in self-indulgence.

 

Nicodemus in the gospel is being taught by Jesus that his life needs the renovation we all need: you are Nicodemus, I am Nicodemus.

 

He needs a new birth, from above – from the Holy God.

 

As Nicodemus clocked, birth is traumatic: we have to leave the warmth and comfort of what we know, through the birth pangs, to emerge into an unfamiliar world, but ultimately the world in which we will grow and flourish and be led into all truth by the Spirit that blows where it wills. (cf John 16.13 & 3.8).

 

That new birth, this being born from above, is baptism and the way that is kept pristine is through regular confession of our sinfulness, wilful shortcomings and lack of holiness.

 

It is honest confession of sin, to the Holy God, that shapes holy lives.

 

We begin worship always by confessing our sins: we do that because we are on the threshold of the holiness of God: it is, as it were, taking off our sandals in his presence.

 

I cannot commend highly enough the act of personal, sacramental confession: my goodness it’s tough, but then being born from above is tough and is demanding, it is saying my life is shaped by God, not by my will.

 

Holy lives become instruments of God’s will.

 

There is no other test.

 

That is why we can look to the fiat of the Blessed Virgin Mary, her declaration, ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’ (Luke 1:38).

 

That is a holy response to the holiness of God; renouncing self, to be filled – full-filled - by the holiness of God.

 

And that is why holiness always sends.

 

Isaiah’s encounter with the holiness of God in worship is to say, in response to the call of holiness, ‘Here I am; send me’ (Isaiah 6.8).

 

Holiness does not reside solely in Temples.

 

In fact, it resides in the bodies of those who become temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6.19), bodies sent out in the power of the Holy Spirit to breathe the Spirit’s love into the world in the name of Jesus to lead all people to the Father.

 

In all I have said you may have spotted that the Eucharist which we celebrate now takes us through those moves: we have already made a corporate confession; and then we to come the Sanctus ‘holy, holy, holy; and conclude with dismisaal: when you hear the words, ‘Go in the peace of Christ’it’s an invitation to respond ‘here I am, send me’.

 

And the music and ceremony of the Liturgy enhances that sense of the holiness of God; but however beautiful that won’t be enough, because personal holiness has to be lived out too in real life. As St Benedict says:

 

Do not aspire to be called holy before you really are, but first be holy that you may be truly called so. The Rule of St Benedict, Chapter IV, 62

 

And all holiness emanates from the holiness of the Blessed Trinity: to whom be all might majesty, dominion and power now and for ever. Amen.

Saturday 18 May 2024

'What does this mean?' A Sermon for Pentecost

All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, 'What does this mean?' But others sneered and said, 'They are filled with new wine.' (Acts 2.12,13)

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'What does this mean?'

That's the question the crowds posed on the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit - as a mighty rushing wind and in tongues of fire - was poured out upon Peter and the eleven, who then were empowered to speak in languages unknown to them but understood by the crowds from around the Jewish dispersion.

What does it mean, indeed?

The manner of the coming of the Holy Spirit is one thing; the Holy Spirit's presence in the Church is quite another.

On the Day of Pentecost, we can fixate on the outer signs and miss the inner workings, the 'what does this mean?' of the Descent of the Holy Spirit.

St Gregory the Great suggests that the outer sign of the powerful breath of the Spirit points to the propagation of grace by the Spirit, to be made known to the nations, especially in the forgiveness of sins.

The tongues of fire signify a longing for higher things: the Spirit appeared as flames, which tend to rise upwards, and so the Spirit raises our hearts on high.

There is something radically new here - the crowd had never heard the like of this - and also something deeply ancient, from the before the foundation of the world.

Peter, in beginning to explain to the crowds what this all means, reaches deep into the scriptures, to the prophecy of Joel, to make clear that what he and the other apostles proclaim are not drunken ramblings - irrespective of the time of day - but are at the heart of the purposes of God, for the salvation of those who 'call upon his name' (Acts 2.21).

The Holy Spirit - the power of God that brought about Creation - who is being poured out, is ever old and ever new, giving capacity and power to those at the start of their earthly life, and equally to those who approach the evening of life.

As the psalm puts it:

'Young men and maidens, old men and children, praise the Name of the Lord: for his Name only is excellent, and his praise above heaven and earth.' (Psalm 148.12)

'What does this mean?' It means that the Holy Spirits draws men and women, old and young, to the praise and worship of God.

This is an action of the Holy Spirit.

'What does this mean?'

St Paul writing to the Christians of Rome, as we heard in our second reading, speaks beautifully of the same Spirit who inspires us to pray: when our life of prayer seems bleak or barren, non-existent or a puzzle, the Holy Spirit will help form our unformed deep sighs, longings and yearnings into words.

No wonder the Holy Spirit unsettles people.

To be in put in touch with who we really are, and who God calls us to be, is unnerving.

The actions of the Spirit can unsettle and disrupt and challenge our comfort and those around us, such that they ask, ‘what does this mean?’

Non-Christians family or friends may look at your faith and say, ‘what does this mean?’ – be ready to tell them!

This is where another work of the Holy Spirit comes in: the Holy Spirt is described as the 'Comforter', but that is in the sense of the Latin, com-fortis, meaning, 'with strength'.

The Holy Spirit doesn't cuddle us, but opens our bodies, minds and human spirit to God’s power and strength, to help us give an account of the hope that is within us as Christians: as Peter, the apostles and the saints through the ages, have done – and continue to do.

'What does this mean?'

The Holy Spirit pours grace and power in wind and flame upon otherwise fragile people to worship and adore God the Father in Jesus’ name.

The same Spirit draws together a disparate body of people – you and old, male and female – to be the Body of Christ in the world and seeing God’s power in dreams, visions and reality, transforming lives.

The same Holy Spirit empowers us to God’s witnesses to the ends of the earth, and, more modestly - but still a tremendous challenge - to our own families, friends and colleagues.

The Spirit’s call to worship, fellowship and witness, is what many people today will say, ‘well, if that’s your thing and you’re not affecting anyone else, fine, believe it’

But this Holy Spirit is what Jesus, in the Gospel, declares to be the 'Spirit of truth' who comes from the Father, the Spirit of truth, 'who will guide you into all truth' (John 16.13)

This is when the crowds of today ask, 'What does this mean?' Now that is unnerving for modernity.

In a world that has been declared to be 'post-truth' - where 'my truth' trumps 'your truth'; where the objectivity of truth is deconstructed, up for grabs and used as a weapon; where being truthful is deemed unkind - to speak of truth and the Spirit of truth who will 'guide you into all truth' is going to be contested.

It's actually not entirely new: 'what is truth?' Pontius Pilate famously asked at Jesus' trial.

The Holy Spirit reveals that Jesus Christ is truth itself.

Jesus Christ is 'full of grace and truth' (John 1.14) and likewise the Spirit of truth, the Spirit of Jesus, will guide us into all truth, a truth that is not ‘my truth’ or ‘your truth’ but is God's.

What does all this mean?

In the words of the priest and poet, Gerard Manly Hopkins, it means this:

What God's Son has told, take for truth, I do;

Truth Himself speaks truly or there's nothing true.

 

If you’re living the truth of Jesus Christ then your life yields the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control? (Galatians 5.22) and you allow the Holy Spirit of God to 'search your heart' (Romans 8.27), to search you out and know you'?

 

And the Spirit of truth breathes through the life of the Church today, as surely as on the Day of Pentecost.

 

Our human fragility, confusions and claims to the truth, do not ultimately impede the Spirt of truth, who guides us into all the truth, so we in our day receive the faith revealed to the Apostles, which we receive and we in turn share.

 

The dreams and visions the Apostle Peter speaks of are not delusions, but glimpses into the truth and mind of God.

 

Come, Holy Spirit fill the hearts of your faithful people, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Alleluia. Amen.

Sunday 5 May 2024

What does love look like?

Acts 10.44-48 The Gentiles have received the Spirt as much as we have

1 John 5.1-6 This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments

John 15.9-17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

 

‘I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.’

 

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Today’s gospel is part of a longer passage in which Jesus is addressing his disciples, and, by extension, he is teaching us too.

 

He’s teaching them, and us, some profoundly important things: about the nature of God; about how he and God, the Father, relate; and about how we frail, sinful, mortals can both reflect the divine love, and be drawn into it, such that we take on the character of God and are fruitful and filled with joy.

 

But this morning’s passage can be quite confusing: the language of St John’s Gospel can appear to repeat, go round in circles and be generally baffling.

 

We need a key to unlock it; and that key for interpretation is the concept of love.

 

I was challenged during the past week with this thought that was put to me: we Christians talk a lot about love, it appears a great deal in our readings and Great Tradition, but how far do we understand what it means?

 

What is this love that Christ teaches?

 

One starting point is to note that the Greek language has different words that all translate into English as ‘love’.

 

(So the slogan ‘love is love’ is a little more complex than it first sounds.)

 

For example, there is a difference between my love for my country and the love I have for my wife and children: both are love, but are somewhat different!

 

Rather than go down the dictionary route, we might ask, in the spirit of the gospel passage, ‘what does love look like?’

 

What does it look like truly to love God?

 

What does it look like truly to love another person?

 

What does it look like truly to be loved by God?

 

What does it look like truly to be loved by another person?

 

St Paul famously describes what this love looks like, in what he calls a ‘more excellent way’, that is, more excellent than many spiritual gifts like prophecy, teaching, healing, speaking in tongues and such like (1 Corinthians 12.28-30).

 

What Paul raises our sights towards are the ‘higher gifts’ which he goes on to identify as faith, hope and… love.

 

So here is a way into our questions about what love, human and divine, looks like:

 

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13.4-7)

 

Here’s an exercise to do with those verses. If you replace your name for ‘love’ does it ring true? How does this sound if you apply it to yourself? How far can you say?

 

I am patient; I am kind; I am not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. I do not insist on my own way; I am not irritable or resentful; I do not rejoice in wrongdoing, but I rejoice in the truth. I bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.

 

Ask, does your life look like that? And how can you let go of those things that are not of love? [see below for a method of examining this in your life]

 

And if you replace the name ‘Jesus’ for ‘love’, you find the two are interchangeable.

 

Indeed, at risk of going back to the dictionary, what St Paul is describing is the Greek word agape, which sometimes people call ‘Christian love’.

 

In fact, it’s the word Jesus uses throughout the Gospel reading this morning when the word ‘love’ appears. It is the love described by St Paul: a love that is pure and sacrificial and generous and joyful and fruitful and flowing from God.

 

And this love endures though everything.

 

Whilst everything is partial in this world, in the life of the world to come we will see unimpeded, for then we will know the life and love of heaven, when we are fully grafted into the life of God.

 

So love is not about rivalry or competition or making trade-offs or seeking selfish gain is not love.

 

When we truly love we will the good of the other, simply for their sake not ours.

 

So love always involves treating another person as a person not an object. 

 

That is where prevalence of pornography is so destructive both to the viewer and the viewed.

 

Pornography is literally inhuman because it makes another person’s body into an object to be viewed not a person to be loved.

 

Love is personal.

 

By that I mean love is about persons, that is how we are made.

 

The first letter of John reminds us that if we can’t love another person, then we cannot begin to love God. (1 John 4.20)

 

Yet God’s love is what brought us, and the whole creation, into being.

 

This love is home, a love to rest in and dwell in: ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love’. (John 15.9)

 

This love is sacrificial because, as Jesus says, love is tested in what it is ready to give up or let go of, not in what it tries to hold onto, even life itself: ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’. (John 15.13)

 

That’s the ultimate expression of what love looks like – and it is what we see when we contemplate the Cross.

 

It is the primary command of the Lord of how we are to be; everything else flows from the Divine Love: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’ (John 15.10).

 

This is what makes abiding in God possible and bearable.

 

Our love is always a response to God’s love: without love there is no space for truth, no space for hope and we squeeze out faith.

 

Love fulfils all that is good, and beautiful, and true: love binds all together in unity as a whole.

 

This love is seen on the Cross, for Jesus laid down his life for his friends, and he calls you and me into that friendship.

 

What a privilege, friendship with the Source of Love.

 

So may we respond, in love, to the Love that comes to us from God.

 

LIVING IN GOD’S LOVE:

A FORM OF SELF-EXAMINATION

 

“God is love, and those who live in God live in love and God lives in them.” (1 John 4.16)

 

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13.4-7)

 

Can I say?

I am patient; I am kind; I am not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. I do not insist on my own way; I am not irritable or resentful; I do not rejoice in wrongdoing, but I rejoice in the truth. I bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.

 

Jesus said: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15.9-11)

Monday 22 April 2024

The power of the Name

Acts 4.5-12

1 John 3.16-24

John 10.11-18


The high priest asked, ‘By what power or name did you do this?’ (Acts 4.7)

 

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The first passports that bear the name of King Charles III, rather than the late Queen Elizabeth, are now being issued.

 

And on the inside of the first page is a statement that says: 

 

His Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State requests and requires in the name of His Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance…

 

There’s an interesting phrase: ‘…in the name of His Majesty…’.

 

It sounds a bit old fashioned and antiquated: the King’s name is invoked as the authority by which his subjects should be able to travel freely.

 

Many things in our country are done in the name of the King.

 

What we have in the Acts of the Apostles, our first reading this morning, is the apostle Peter who says he has acted, and now speaks, in the Name of Jesus, who is King of kings and Lord of lords.

 

What Peter had done – and for which he was now on trial before the high priest - was to heal a man, disabled from birth, and speak about the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

 

This brought about scandal for the Jewish authorities and, as they were interrogating the followers of the Crucified and Risen Lord Jesus, their question was, ‘by what power or by what name did you do this?’

 

It sounds like an odd question.

 

It is we moderns who seek to do everything in our own name.

 

In some ways that is good.

 

If I act in my own name then I am taking responsibility for my actions.

 

But when we only act in our own name then we are suggesting that we have no frame of reference other than ourselves.

 

Putting ourselves at the centre of things the logical conclusion is that we put ourselves at the centre of day to day affairs

 

It is the ultimate in self-autonomy.

 

That was the aim of the so-called Enlightenment of the eighteenth century: ‘I think therefore, I am’.

 

It’s about defining everything on my own terms when I act in my own name.

 

That is not the way of the Christian, as shown by Peter in the reading, and the saints throughout the ages.

 

The Christian acts in the Lord’s name.

 

How do we begin each Eucharist? ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’

 

Frankly, that’s how we should begin every day, committing the new day, our tasks and our lives to God, our Maker and Redeemer, in whose name we are baptised.

 

Try that tomorrow morning when you wake up, make the sign of the cross and say ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’

 

Do it when you undertake a new task, when you face a difficult challenge, when you have to break bad news, when you have to speak the truth in a hostile situation.

 

As Christians we are to speak and act in God’s name.

 

The Name is an important motif in the Bible.

 

Remember Moses at the Burning Bush:

 

But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ (Exodus 3.13,14)

 

From that encounter Moses acted in the name of the LORD to claim freedom for his enslaved people the Israelites.

 

This name, ‘I am who I am’, is invoked by Jesus because he acts in the Name of the Lord, but is the Lord in his divine nature: that’s why we get the sayings, ‘I am the bread of life’ (John 6.35), ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14.6) and, today, ‘I am the Good Shepherd’ (John 10.11).

 

Jesus, who is God, acts in God’s Name – I am who I am – there is no other authority by which he acts and by which he saves and gives life.

 

It’s only because he is God that he can act authentically in his own name.

 

For us mortals we can only act in another name, otherwise we are uncommitted hirelings.

 

It’s a blunt question to consider: are you ready to be more than Christian in Name Only?

 

For the Christian the Name in which we act is always and only Christ.

 

Anything that distracts from this is corrosive to our nature, who we are made to be.

 

That is what Peter is proclaiming when he says at the end of the first reading, ‘There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved’. (Acts 4.12)

 

Not only do we act in Christ’s name, we are saved by his name.

 

This is what St Paul is articulating as he writes in his Letter to the Philippians:

 

at the name of Jesus

   every knee should bend,

   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

   that Jesus Christ is Lord,

   to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2.10,11)

 

That’s the origin of the laudable practice of bowing one’s head when the Name of Jesus is spoken.

 

It is in his name we are saved, when we are named before him as his beloved child at our baptism: I have called you by your name, says the Lord.

 

It is in his name that we are to act and think and speak.

 

And as a hymn puts it, ‘His Name shall stand forever | That Name to us is Love.’ (Hail to the Lord’s Anointed, New English Hymnal, 51).

 

Go back to our second reading from the first letter of John to see what this looks like: living in his Name, living in Love, is how we fulfil the commandments.

 

John writes: ‘And this is [God’s] commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.’ (1 John 3.23).

 

‘That Name to us is Love’.

 

When you travel abroad King Charles’s name will get you through passport control.

 

When you live your life as a Christian the Name of Jesus is your power and hope and salvation for your journey, the journey to abundant life he leads you on as the Good Shepherd.

 

Almighty God,

you gave Jesus the name that is above every name:
give us grace faithfully to bear his Name,

and to hear his call as our Good Shepherd,

to lead us to the table you spread before us.

In his name we pray.

Amen.