Sunday, 1 August 2021

The Bread of Life

Preached as a sermon at Croydon Minster on Sunday 1 August, 2021, readings Exodus 16.2-4, 9-15; John 6.24-35 



I am the bread of life, says the Lord,

whoever comes to me will never be hungry,

and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. John 6.35

 

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In today’s gospel we are given more teaching by Jesus on what it means for him to be the Bread of Life. It’s a theme from last Sunday’s gospel and will be next Sunday too.

 

In John, chapter six, of which today’s gospel is a part, we are given deeper insights into what is going on in the Eucharist - and how that connects with our spiritual yearnings and physical needs - in our desire for Christ, the Bread of Life.

 

In the Olympics we see how the human body needs fuelling when it is on the extremes of physical performance. But even those of us who are not elite athletes need to refuel our bodies too.

 

But food is more than fuel. Food is also about hospitality, about companionship, about connection; human and divine. Food shows us the intimate connection between body and soul, who we are. Food nourishes cells and muscles; it nourishes the soul as we feast with others and as we fast.

 

The Eucharist elevates us beyond a simple meal into a divine human encounter where we feast on angels’ food.

 

The Biblical sources for this understanding are clear:

 

First there is the mysterious manna, ‘a fine flaky substance’ which was bread that God had given, yet as today’s psalm says: ‘so mortals ate the bread of angels; he gave them bread from heaven.’ (Psalm 78).

 

The Feeding of the Five Thousand was a revelation of miraculous abundance in Christ.

 

At the Last Supper Jesus invested the ritual meal of the Passover with new meaning, declaring that the bread he took, broke and shared was nothing less than his Body, and the wine likewise his Blood: he is the Passover Lamb.

 

At Emmaus the real presence of the Crucified and Risen Lord was signified in the broken bread.

 

The banquet of heaven unveiled in the Book of Revelation connects our earthly offering of the Eucharist with the eternal heavenly banquet.

 

The Eucharist, Holy Communion, is so much more than a simple meal; it is when our prayer ‘give us this day our daily bread’ is answered and we receive the Bread of Life.

 

It seems so unlikely in many ways. Like the crowds in the gospel we feel there should be more of a sign, perhaps something a little more spectacular than this round disk of bread, that hardly seems to be bread.

 

The sign should not detract from the One who is signified.

 

The host, as it’s known, resembles more the manna the Israelites ate in the desert rather than the sort of bread we might be used to, with butter and jam.

 

When that host is placed on your hand you hear the words, ‘The Body of Christ’. What a remarkable declaration! This is the Body of Christ, the Bread of Life. And speaking the word ‘Amen’ in response you are saying ‘yes: so be it’; you are assenting to the presence of Christ that you are to receive; you are saying, ‘Lord, give me this bread always’; you are believing.

 

There’s a saying: ‘you are what you eat’. You will receive and eat the Bread of Life: what will become of you?

 

Sunday, 25 July 2021

The Fifth Loaf: Meeting Jesus Christ in the Eucharist

 He set loaves of bread before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the LORD.

2 Kings 4.44

 

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In the gospel last week Jesus sighed with compassion and pity on the crowds who were like ‘sheep without a shepherd’. In other words, they were hungry for pastures that would nourish them and guidance that would lead them on the deepest level.

 

So what could he do for them?

 

Leaders are very good at the ‘bread and circuses’ approach to their people, throwing out cheap ruses that will that give fleeting satisfaction: crumbs that meet the basic need for a bite to eat and the circus for a bit of fun and entertainment.

 

The Roman Emperors knew all about that. And political leaders into our own day do it too. It’s about gaining short term approval, sedating the clamouring crowd.

 

But bread and circuses only deal with the surface.

 

The gospel today points us to the lasting nourishment, the deep feeding, fripperies stripped away so that we find we are given more than enough, there is more left over, more to come back to.

 

God preserve us, in the Church, from the bread and circus approach to faith which fobs people off with vacuous promises, glittering initiatives, passing fads married to the spirit of the age. The Gospel is inexhaustibly nourishing giving solid food not palliatives.

 

Jesus says, ‘I am the bread of Life’. He was born in a place, Bethlehem, that literally means the ‘House of Bread’; he was born in a manger, which is a feeding trough.

 

In today’s gospel the Bread of Life, feeds the teeming crowd with… the Bread of Life. That green field where the Five Thousand gathered is the pasture where the sheep are fed; this church is a House of Bread, a Bethlehem, where people are fed with the Bread of Life.

 

We are in the pasture here and now. Christ draws us in all our human frailty and bewilderment to give us more than the world can offer. The Church feeds on the Bread of Life and, indeed, notices the gifts that even the smallest, apparently most insignificant, people can bring. After all, it is a child who brings what is needful to the table, what seemed tiny and insignificant, which is abundantly transformed by Christ.

 

That’s why a healthy church never underestimates the ministry and potential of children in the flourishing of the gospel.

Let’s never stifle that instinctive faith and expectation from our children, or indeed from ourselves. And let’s nurture the faith of children in fresh ways and support parents and carers as they have the primary task of bringing their children up to the glory of God the Father.

 

Let’s rejoice when we hear the cry of a child, not say we’re distracted by them: they might have some loaves and fishes with them!

 

So not only are the crowds fed by Christ, but there is bread left over. That bread will keep them fed; it will feed others who are drawn to the banquet. As today’s psalm put it:

 

The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord,

and you give them their food in due season.

You open wide your hand

and fill all things living with plenty. Psalm 145.16,17

 

The Feeding of the Five Thousand (which, incidentally, is portrayed in a fresco on the north side of our High Altar), the Last Supper, the breaking of bread on the road to Emmaus are Gospel sources for what we are doing now in the Eucharist.

 

Writing to the Church of Corinth St Paul says, ‘For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks over it, he broke it and said, ‘Do this in remembrance of me’. (1 Corinthians 11.23). It the self-same action of Christ. Taking bread. Giving thanks over it. Breaking it.

 

Christian disciples instinctively recognise that when bread is taken, thanks given over it and broken, then Jesus Christ is present.

 

The Eucharist is the distinctive, precious and central worship of the Church: the source and summit of the Christian life.

 

This is no circus; no fast food that fails to satisfy. This is deep, slow, lasting food that opens up the divine life of Christ so that we grow in holiness.

 

At the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes in the Holy Land, at Tabgha, by the Sea of Galilee, where the miracle is said to have taken place, there is an ancient mosaic right in front of the altar of the ancient Byzantine church. The mosaic shows the two fishes, brought by the boy, and a basket of four loaves. Four? - you might ask – where’s the fifth?

 

Where’s that fifth loaf? Of course, it’s on the altar itself, and it is what we now eat.

 

‘He set the loaves of bread before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the LORD.’


Monday, 19 July 2021

Sent to show the love of Christ: A Sermon

 

Preached as a sermon at Croydon Minster, Sunday 18 July 2021. Gospel reading mark 6.30-34, 53-end.

 

 

‘The apostles returned from their mission. They gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught’

 

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In the verses before the passage in St Mark’s gospel that we have just heard, the disciples have been sent out by Jesus to begin to collaborate in the work he was already doing.

 

He sent them out: but he sent them with practically nothing to live on – no bread, no bag, no money in their belts. Oh, but they were allowed a staff, and some sandals.

 

They were learning utter dependence on him. They were learning that to be a disciple – literally, one who learns by following – one must also be an apostle - literally, one who is sent.

 

What Jesus did give them was authority. Authority to speak and act in his name, to be bearers of life that would triumph over death and distress.

 

Earlier in this chapter we heard that ‘they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them’. (Mark 6.13)

 

So when we heard ‘they gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught’ .That’s what they had returned to tell him.  

 

The ones who were sent – apostles – came to report back, and they reverted to being disciples – learners. And Jesus taught both by teaching and instructing, but also by sending. And when they returned they recounted what they had learnt and reflected on it. And they came to rest.

 

How often in life do we find that we learn more when we have some basic instructions and then get out there and put it into practice. All the better when we know the Master is ready to scoop us up, and help us learn better next time.

 

It’s often said that learning to drive takes place after you’ve passed your test. And learning to swim does not happen on the poolside but in the water.

 

So often the learning is in the doing, and, importantly, in the reflecting on what we have done. That’s why Jesus took them to a solitary place, to pray, ponder, reflect.

 

That’s how Jesus teaches us now through his church. Christians are active, praying learners; always disciples always apostles, by virtue of being baptised.

 

As the baptised Jesus invites us to participate in his mission, which is the Father’s mission, the Missio Dei as it’s known.

 

In the Eucharist we come first to adore God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are taught through the scriptures, through preaching; we rest in Christ in prayer; we are fed at the table he spreads before us, and we are sent.

 

All this is being wrapped up in the life of Christ, and it is the Church’s mission.

 

The word ‘mission’ means ‘to be sent’. So the mission of the church is lived out in every disciple , and every disciple is sent out as an apostle.

 

That’s why we will say in the Creed, I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church’. And we acknowledge that the Church is inspired, led and guided by the Holy Spirit.

 

‘Go in the peace of Christ’: that ends each Eucharist where, as disciples, learners and growers, we have been intimately with Jesus Christ and now are sent as apostles, bearers of Christ’s message of life in all its abundance.

 

No Christian disciple is exempt from being an apostle, one who is sent. Hence, Go in peace.

 

Whether you’ve been a Christian for 1 year or 80 years you are sent to be Christ to the world, whether that’s at home, at school, at work, in business or even on Zoom.

 

You learn and grow as a Christian by being a Christian.

 

So make your first questions at the beginning of each day, as a disciple and apostle, these:

 

How may I show the love of Christ today?

How may I honour Christ in all I think and speak and do today?

 

However trivial, worthless, boring, exasperating or frustrating you may see your life or tasks this week, you can still ask those questions: you can be Christ to the world.

 

How may I show the love of Christ today?

How may I honour Christ in all I think and speak and do today?

 

Then cherish what you find.

 

 

Sunday, 11 July 2021

Towards the banquet of life

Preached as a sermon at Croydon Minster on the Sixth Sunday after Trinity. Gospel reading Mark 6.14-29

 

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It’s a nightmare for King Herod.

 

Sitting on his throne in Jerusalem, he has been hearing what Jesus has been doing ‘up North’ in the backwater of Nazareth and in and around Galilee, healing people, performing miracles and proclaiming the Kingdom, and overwhelming love, of God.

 

It’s a nightmare because people are saying that John the Baptist - who Herod had murdered - was raised from the dead and active again.

 

As we heard, Herod, found John intriguing but frightening: John was clearly good and spoke the truth but he aimed the truth at Herod.

 

Herod was a tyrant, murderer and incestuous adulterer. And John called him out.

 

John the Baptist is, of course, our patron saint. Just a couple of weeks ago our focus was on his example and prayer as a patron saint as we celebrated his birth, but now it is his death we have heard about.

 

In life as in death John the Baptist prepares the way for the Lamb of God who is slain by the powers of this world.

 

In so doing we find that this gospel reading tells us a huge amount about the conflicts and machinations of the human heart, that, if not restrained and well-directed, issue in violence and ultimately murder.

 

This was understood by the hugely influential French-American philosopher and anthropologist, René Girard. Girard, a Christian, who died some 6 years ago, was fascinated by the links between violence and religion. Girard saw the Bible as naming and unveiling the patterns of tension at the heart of human society.

 

In a nutshell, he shows how our desires can lead to conflict and how in order to resolve the conflict we create scapegoats who take the blame for what has gone wrong and in so doing we think we have made peace and somehow pleased God.

 

You might see this in two children playing. Child A and child B are playing happily. Child A sees child B enjoying her toy, so child A now wants that toy. But it’s not the toy per se, it’s that child B enjoys that toy, so child A wants it and tries to snatch it. A struggle ensues.

 

How is the struggle resolved? Possibly a parent intervenes and the desired toy is removed from both parties and peace descends. Or the children decide to resolve it themselves by smashing up the toy they both wanted and they do something else together.

 

In both examples the conflict ceases through a truce after the toy in question has been blamed and removed.

 

It happens all the more in adult society. Societies in tension find the scapegoat to blame: with Covid it was young people partying; with Brexit it was big bad Brussels and refugees; with 1930s Germany it was the Jews; with Herod and Herodias, in their adulterous affair, it was John the Baptist, which is why John was in prison.

 

When the scapegoat is ostracised, ridiculed or eradicated a truce descends under the guise of unity.

 

Yet the prophet Jeremiah noticed in Jerusalem in his day, ‘They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, “Peace, peace” when there is no peace’ (Jeremiah 6.14; 8.11. see also Ezekiel 13.10). Fake peace is built on the targeted victim. John becomes a truce making victim.

 

One of the famous elements of the murder of John the Baptist is the dance that Salomé performs for Herod and his confederates. It is a parody of the joyful dance of the unborn John the Baptist, dancing in his mother’s womb as he recognised the presence of Christ in the Virgin Mary.

 

The idea of Salome, a young girl, dancing for these drunken, lecherous men is deeply disturbing and what we would recognise today as abusive and exploitative.

 

Salome is reputed to have danced the dance of the seven veils, yet what is truly unveiled is the violence of the human heart when unchecked, the tendency to create the person or people to blame, to deflect from our own malice and ill will.

 

It may not lead us to murder, but who are the others we blame so as to avoid taking our responsibility in life? What is the underlying grievance in our hearts that bursts out in running others down? How do we use our criticisms of other people to mask our own frailties and vulnerability?

 

What Herod found was that the truth is not satisfied with false truces and is no respecter of earthly power. That’s why when Jesus was doing his deeds of power, that were not about violence but about restoration of life in its abundance, Herod was unsettled and got his nightmarish flashback about how he had killed John.

 

The truth of God will not be snuffed out by tyrants.

 

True fellowship, society and community is built not on violence followed by fake truces, but is grounded in forgiveness, love and identification with the victim.

 

What the gospels unveil is that Jesus Christ is the victim who makes peace and forms peace in the human heart. Jesus Christ deconstructs the myths we live by because the victim is the one in control and not the victimiser, the Herod, the Pontius Pilate, the you or the me.

 

The way of discipleship is precisely to open ourselves to saying I will not create scapegoats and victims. I will desire only Christ, in a way that is not in competition with others, but fixing my eyes on him is about truth, love, peace and life in all its abundance.

 

John the Baptist famously declared, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1.29). Jesus Christ is the Lamb, the victim, who through his resurrection draws us from the culture of death, blame and malice.

 

 At Herod’s feast the culture of death, retribution, rivalry and scapegoating prevailed. In Jesus Christ’s Eucharistic banquet, the culture of life, reconciliation, communion and embracing of the victim is celebrated.

 

That is not the stuff of nightmares, but of our deepest, heartfelt desires.

Monday, 28 June 2021

'His name is John': a patronal festival homily

Preached as a sermon at the Minster Church of St John the Baptist, Croydon. Readings: Isaiah 401.1-11; Luke 1.57-66,80

 

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‘His name is John’! And the name John means ‘the Lord is gracious’.

 

Today is our patronal festival, that is to say the festival when we celebrate our patron saint.

 

And that patron saint is St John the Baptist.

 

A patron, according to the dictionary, can be a couple of things.

 

First a patron is ‘a customer, especially a regular one, of a shop, restaurant or theatre’. That doesn’t sound quite the sort of patron we’re talking about here. John the Baptist doesn’t drop by to take in a show at the Minster: he’s not that sort of patron.

 

Another definition is ‘a person who gives financial or other support to a person, organization, cause, or activity’. Well, John doesn’t give us any financial support, he’s not on the direct debit planned giving scheme and he doesn’t use GiftAid. So what are we talking about here?

 

A patron saint has a deeper function and gives other support.

 

As Bishop Rowan Williams says, ‘Patron saints are not there to be benign mascots; they are given so that nations and groups and individuals may have identifiable friends in the company of heaven who will give a particular direction and sharpness to the challenges of the gospel.’

 

What a beautiful thought, that here at this church, we have an ‘identifiable friend in the company of heaven’.

 

The Christian understanding of the Communion of Saints isn’t of a mush of people who have died, like drops making up a pool, but individuals whose identity is magnified as they praise God and pray for us on earth. So we can have an identifiable friend in heaven.

 

That patron saint, our identifiable friend in heaven, prays for us: there is nothing more encouraging than to know that your friend, living or departed, is praying for you at the throne of grace.

 

Our identifiable friend in heaven is an example to us in the living out of the gospel: there is nothing more inspiring than the example of a friend. A Christian friend’s life helps us in being a Christian.

 

And as Rowan Williams says, our patron saint, our identifiable friend in heaven, ‘gives a particular direction and sharpness to the challenges of the gospel.’

 

You can certainly say that of John the Baptist.

 

Before I came to Croydon, I have to confess that I hadn’t really thought a huge amount about him, other than that he was a bit weird, somewhat off putting and rather remote.

 

I was, of course, aware of his high profile during the season of Advent, when he is identified as the one who proclaims the coming Christ and fulfilling the text of our first reading: John’s is the voice crying out in the wilderness, ‘prepare the way of the Lord’.

 

But since I have been here I have pondered John much more. I ask his prayers for me, for you and our church. He has become my friend in the Communion of Saints!

 

And his example stirs and inspires me in my ministry here, and I hope all of us in our Christian faith.

 

Accounts of John begin with his childhood: let us rejoice in the presence of children and young people in our midst and ensure they are served and nurtured: that is a gift adult disciples can give to the young.

 

John the Baptist takes us to the heart of the matter, away from the fripperies and distractions: John leads us to a deep encounter with Jesus Christ.

 

John knows that his mission and ministry is to point people to Jesus Christ. And that he does.

 

He makes himself unpopular by speaking the truth, rebuking those who exploit the poor, and the tyrant King Herod, to the cost of his life.

 

What integrity. John the Baptist puts the grit back into integrity!

 

John is intensely humble and aware of who he is, ‘I am not worthy to untie the thong of Christ’s sandal’.

 

John’s blunt and direct: turn away from sin; turn to God.

 

In all of that John does not want to get in the way of his message: ‘Christ must increase; I must decrease’ (John 3.30). A bit like St Paul saying, ‘it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’ (Galatians 2.20)

 

Ultimately John tells us to look beyond himself to the very heart of the matter, to the depth of the mystery of God revealed in the one he calls the ‘Lamb of God’: it’s my message, not me.

 

John says to us, as our gritty, personal friend, ‘Behold. Look. See. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’.

 

We sing John’s words at every Eucharist, ‘O Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world. Have mercy upon us. Grant us peace’. In doing so we adore Jesus Christ; and John’s task is realised.

 

For this is where we come to behold, and to meet, Jesus Christ in his word and sacrament.

 

In John the Baptist, we have a friend in heaven, whose powerful prayers we ask for in our daily lives as disciples of Christ and in the ministry and mission of Christ’s church.

 

V. Pray for us, O glorious St. John the Baptist,

R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Monday, 21 June 2021

Finding deep peace in the storms of life

Preached as sermon at Croydon Minster on Sunday 20th June 2021. Readings: Job 38.1-11; Mark 4.35-41.

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Last Friday morning I was standing in a queue outside the Lidl on Church Street, in the middle of a heavy downpour, waiting for the shop to open.

 

The great thing about a priest wearing a clerical collar is that people react. It’s either by studiously ignoring you; or being pretty rude; or being really rather pleased to see a priest and engaging in conversation. To be honest sometimes those conversations can be pretty off the wall and, at other times, really heart-warming and transformative.

 

So it was that I stood in the rain - dog collar on and umbrella in hand - when a woman struck up a conversation. As we talked, both getting soaked, she spoke about her experience of lockdown.

 

She talked about her faith and about the church.

 

She said how the lockdowns had brought her to a greater realisation of her need for prayer and the sense of the power of God working in her life. She sought a power greater than herself in the great storms of life.

 

The storm of the pandemic blew up as if from nowhere, catching us all off guard.

 

Sometimes, of course, we know a storm is coming. Storms, literal or metaphorical, are disorientating and frightening.

 

That’s true of a mental or physical health episode, or when addiction or dependence just can’t be shaken off, or when money has run out, or debt becomes overbearing, or when life just crowds in on us.

 

So that woman in the queue had sought help from God in the storm she faced. Prayer became her lifeline and kept her in touch with the peace of God which passes all understanding.

 

She could not still the storm, but she knew someone who could!

 

That takes us to this morning’s gospel reading.

 

Jesus has been teaching the crowds about the Kingdom of God (Mark 4.26-34). There were so many people who wanted to hear him that he had spoken from a boat as the crowd stood on the lakeside.

 

By evening Jesus was clearly exhausted, so they set off away from the crowds on the tranquil Sea of Galilee. And Jesus fell asleep.

 

Then the storm blew up.

 

If you have been to the Holy Land you will know that the Sea of Galilee, which is a large inland lake really, is open on one side and surrounded by hills.

 

Storms can blow up very quickly on the lake, just as they can in our lives too, out of nowhere, and they disrupt and frighten.

 

The wind squalls around and waves crash in on those in the little boat.

 

Let’s just observe the detail for a moment. Jesus is asleep, but the experienced fishermen, well used to the storms on Galilee, are the ones who panic, they are ‘at their wits’ end’ as our psalm today put it. (cf Psalm 107.23-29). That psalm is a good commentary on the gospel reading.

 

What’s going on? What can we extract from this passage as we ponder the storms of life, the confusions, the sense of being tossed about and at the mercy of forces beyond our control?

 

As our first reading from the book of Job makes clear we fool ourselves when we think we are in control, when we have everything sorted, ordered just as we want it.

 

An ancient heresy, known as Pelagianism has a modern form: it’s when we say ‘I’ve got it all sorted, mapped out, planned. By my own effort I will overcome’. It is when we believe we don’t need the grace of God.

 

But, God asks Job, rhetorically, ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?’

 

In other words, you won’t find salvation within yourself, but you will when you reach out in faith and trust and cry out to me.

 

As Psalm 107 says of ‘they that go down to the sea in ships’ (23):

 

So when they cry unto the Lord in their trouble: he delivereth them out of their distress.

For he maketh the storm to cease: so that the waves thereof are still’ (Psalm 107.28,29)

 

It is when we acknowledge our dependency upon God in the storms of life that we will find our true haven, our place of rest, tranquillity and shelter from the storms.

 

Storms will blow up again, personal, national, global and spiritual, but we know where to cry out.

 

As the psalm again says, ‘Then were they glad because they were at rest, and he brought them to the haven they desired’ (Psalm 107.30).

 

They woke the sleeping Christ and found peace: ‘peace. Be still’.

 

Christ sleeps, not because he doesn’t care that we are perishing, but rather that he embodies a deep peace and tranquillity that is of God and available to us in union with the Divine Life.

 

Here we see Jesus truly human; truly divine: gently sleeping; firmly speaking and rebuking the storm. No wonder the disciples ask, agog, ‘who then is this?’

 

This is the Lover of your soul: Jesus Christ, the image, the presence, the power of God who can calm the storms in your life too.

 

We call upon him to receive the peace of God which passes all understanding, the peace flowing from the altar, the peace we come to meet now in this ship of faith, meeting Christ in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar:

 

Sweet Sacrament of rest,

ark from the ocean's roar,

within thy shelter blest

soon may we reach the shore;

save us, for still the tempest raves,

save, lest we sink beneath the waves:

sweet Sacrament of rest.

 

‘Sweet Sacrament, divine’, Francis Stanfield 1835-1914