Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Mission un-boundaried - A Rogation sermon


I want to begin, not with a Biblical text, but some words of the poet TS Eliot, ‘Take no thought of the harvest, but only of the proper sowing’. In other words, don’t be anxious about the results, but give your care and attention to the preparation.

This wisdom has a bearing on many aspects of life.

It has a bearing on those sitting public exams at the moment. The results will be what they will be, the real work is now, and what has been done before now, to prepare.

Likewise the farmer who only agonises about the amount of harvest in a few months’ time may neglect to prepare the land for the seed, forget to water it and to feed it. 

Today, the Sixth Sunday of Eastertide, is also known as Rogation Sunday. The word ‘rogation’ comes from the Latin, rogare, meaning ‘to ask’.

It is a time when we take care ‘of the proper sowing’

It is a time when we reflect upon what it is we ask of the Lord in our lives, for ourselves and our relationships, for our world and its peace and wellbeing.

Rogation is, as it were, the counterpart to the harvest. And so much more effort tends to go into the harvest thanksgiving than the asking for blessing and fruitfulness. It’s not that thankfulness is bad, quite the contrary, but Rogationtide reminds us also to make our requests and petitions known to God: ask and you shall receive.

There is an especially environmental dimension to Rogationtide too. It is when God’s blessing is invoked upon the crops and plants that are growing, asking that they may be fruitful. Rogationtide reminds us to tend and care for the earth not just extract as much out of it as we can and almost literally bleed it dry.

As a Minster church we need a posture of rogation as we consider what God is calling us to in this season of the life of our church. This will really be initiated in our church Vision Day on 15th June, and please do make it a priority to be part of that day, from 1000-1400. And if you can be there, or if you cannot, please pray and ask that it may be fruitful, that our life may be fruitful.

It’s a pernicious tendency in the church to count numbers of attendees and measure the worth of life by attendance numbers. Perhaps we are too much of a harvest church and not enough of a rogation church.

If we actually asked God to bless us in the sowing and propagation of the word of God, we might find our harvest even more richly blessed. There is something organic about mission; it is not mechanistic.

This morning Bishop Jonathan set out his vision for the role of the Minster in the coming years. He was affirming of what we do now and challenged us to deepen our roots so that we may grow.

He gave us a potted history of what Minsters were in ages past and what this one might be today, noting how the parish system and boundaries had been fluid up until Elizabethan times. Curiously, even predating the Elizabethans, it was a Rogationtide custom for processions to go out and ask God’s blessing on the crops but it became the marking out of territory and boundaries, even prompting fisticuffs on the boundaries from time to time.

Mission today will not be served by territorialism. Bishop Jonathan recalled us to a bigger vision than that, and his words are worth looking up and will be made available this week.

As we approach Ascension Day on Thursday we are reminded that the life of God in Christ is not boundaried.

Christ’s resurrection was literally earth shaking event: the powers of the death and the tomb could not hold the Crucified and Risen One.

Our Incarnate Lord, who was restricted to physical location, be it in Galilee or Jerusalem - as we are, in Croydon or wherever - ascended into the heavens such that he is no longer held in by boundaries.

He makes his connection with us in the power of the Holy Spirit, for whose outpouring we await with eager longing at Pentecost, as did the Apostles and the Blessed Virgin Mary, in nine days of deep prayer (cf Acts of the Apostles 1.14). The Spirit makes Christ present at all times and in all places when we call upon him, most especially in intensity of the presence of the Sacraments.

So let us ask God that we may be open to his purposes for us, and that we may be fruitful in all that we think and speak and do, doing all in his name and to his glory.

Monday, 20 May 2019

Love-shaped Church

First preached as a sermon at Croydon Minster on the Fifth Sunday of Eastertide. The readings were Acts of the Apostles 11.1-18; John 13.31-35

‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should love one another’ John 13.34


Love beyond distinction; love beyond discrimination: boundless love.

What is the Gospel, what is the church, when everything is stripped away? Surely it is love beyond distinction; love beyond discrimination: boundless love. St Paul says ‘faith, hope and love endure, these three; and the greatest of these is love’ (1 Corinthians 13.13).

This is expressed in the new commandment that Jesus gives to his disciples and, by extension, to us. This new commandment is called in Latin, the Mandatum Novum, which is where we get the word ‘Maundy’ from, as in Maundy Thursday.

This new commandment lies at the heart of the Maundy Thursday liturgy. Flowing from that commandment and the Last Supper is Christ’s action of loving service, washing his disciples’ feet, demonstrating that it is in acts of loving service that we see the deepest revelation of love.

The remarkable Jean Vanier, who has very recently died – and may God grant him eternal rest – embodied this loving service. He founded the L’Arche communities in which people with disabilities of body and mind live, with those we call able, in communities of mutual support. Out of his obedience to the new commandment, and his deep love for the church and scriptures, he exemplified the Gospel imperative to love. Today L’Arche communities around the world live out the command to love one another.

Reflecting on our gospel passage, in his remarkable book Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John, Vanier writes:

Peter, Judas and the ‘beloved disciple’: three men who react in different ways to Jesus’ love.

Judas rejects and fears love. He pushes Jesus away.

Peter cannot understand Jesus. He loves Jesus but wants to do things his own way.

The beloved disciple surrenders to Jesus’ love and becomes his intimate friend.

These three attitudes are in each one of us at different moments of our lives.[1]

What an accurate summary of how Judas, Peter and John respond - or not - to love. And how searing and honest to observe that we are each prone to all three in our lives: rejection and fear of love, lack of comprehension of love and the embracing of giving and receiving love.

Understanding what love is all about is Peter’s challenge, and is it something picked up on in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles.

This is Peter’s ‘now I get it’ moment. In that slightly bizarre and unsettling vision Peter comes to a ‘penny drop’ moment: he fully understands now that ‘God shows no partiality’ (Acts 10.34).

God’s love is love beyond distinction, love beyond discrimination; boundless love.

And Peter asks, ‘who was I that I could hinder God’?

The task of the Church is to work with the movements of the Spirit, and not to go against.

Peter, representative of authority in the church, understands that any that varieties of service, structures and tradition, what has been handed on to us, is the scaffold that supports our proclamation of the message of God’s love.

The washing of feet by Jesus embodies the command to love: what of the feet to be washed around us? What does it mean to be the parish church of this local community and a Minster at the ancient heart of Croydon?

In a parish that has a local government ward with the highest percentage of young adults in any ward of London, that has the third highest incidence of mental health issues, that has areas in the bottom 5% of deprivation index, that is ethnically and religiously very mixed, that has high levels of loneliness and isolation, that has many complex lives: what does loving service look like?

In the light of all that is on our doorstep how do we respond without partiality and with the loving service of Christ?

From these two readings this morning we can see that the church is to be characterised by love: love of God and love for one another, and that loving service flows from that love.

Love is a resource we will never run out of and the more we give it away the more we receive it. That is true in our personal lives and true for the church. Be lavish in sharing love, and be ready to receive much.

All this helps inform our coming Vision Day as we reflect on who we are as a church so that we may 1) proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom, 2) teach, baptise and nurture new believers, 3) respond to human need by loving service, 4) seek to transform the unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation and 5) to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

Three figures personify the characteristics of the church for us to keep in mind: Mary, Peter and John.

Mary is radically obedient to God: saying ‘yes’ to God’s will; giving her humanity to the service of the Kingdom; pointing constantly to Christ; patiently standing at the foot of the cross; anticipating the coming Holy Spirit. May we be a Marian church.

Peter, the Rock, is entrusted with authority in the church: given of the keys of the kingdom; forgiving and releasing; shepherding and, with Christ, laying down his life for the sheep; connecting the apostolic church in her mission of love into the whole world. May we be a Petrine church.

John, the Beloved Disciple, is the Apostle of the Love of God: nestling in the love of Jesus; telling us that ‘those who live in love live in God and God lives in them’; passing on to us Jesus’ new commandment that we love one another as Christ has loved us. May we be a Johannine church.

In that way we become a Christ-shaped church, attentive to God, connected in mission and filled with love.

Almighty God,
throughout the ages
you have blessed our church
with your presence and love:
Help us to cherish
all that you are doing in our midst,
that as young and old, women and men,
we may embrace your future with hope,
serve our parish
and sing your praises
now, and to all eternity.
Through Jesus Christ,
our risen and ascended Lord.

[1] Jean Vanier, Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John (DLT: 2004) p. 240.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Open minds to Scripture

First preached as a sermon at Croydon Minster at Choral Evensong, Fourth Sunday of Easter.

‘Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures…’ (Luke 24.45)


If the church is to have a future it has to open up. As I suggested at Easter, a church community that is locked in and introspective is doomed, whereas a church that unbolts and opens up has the chance to become, in Christ’s words at the end of the second lesson, ‘witnesses of these things [ the things about Jesus Christ]… and to be clothed with power’ (Luke 24.48, 49)

A refrain running through the gospels is about opening up.

At Jesus’ baptism the heavens were opened.

He opened the ears of the deaf (Mark 7.34) and the eyes of the blind (John 9.1-12 passim).

At his resurrection the tomb was both empty and open.

After his resurrection he opens up minds. From our second lesson, again, ‘Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures…’ and on the Road to Emmaus it was after Jesus has opened up the scriptures to two bewildered disciples that we read, ‘then their eyes were opened…’ (Luke 24.31)

‘Then he opened their minds to the scriptures…’ One of my great sadnesses is that much of the treasure of the church has remained locked up. I don’t mean glittering, gilt chalices or mediaeval manuscripts, I mean the gift of the Word of God, witnessed to in the scriptures.

This was a treasure the early Bible translators wanted to open up to people in all languages. St Jerome for example translated scripture from the Hebrew and Greek into the, then, universal language of Latin. Even before the Reformation translations were being made in the vernacular, the common tongue by the likes of John Wycliffe in the fourteenth century, and then in the sixteenth century by William Tyndale. Later Bible translation has opened up this treasure in almost every written language.

The challenge for us today is how we understand and handle the scriptures and open up the treasures of the gospel to our contemporary world.

The Bible is available but what does it mean for people?

As has been widely suggested, we live in ‘a disenchanted age’.[1] In such an age it is often assumed that someone who has a holy text or sacred scripture is either delusional – “how can they believe all that ancient rubbish from a superstitious era?” - stupid – “what’s all that rubbish about angels, creation etc?” -  or dangerous – “their books tell them to stone adulterers and gay people”.

Where does one start with that?

One of the most helpful books I have read in a long time is by the theologian Walter Moberly. It’s called The Bible in a Disenchanted Age: The Enduring Possibility of Christian Faith.

Moberly has made the study of the scriptures his lifetime passion and helps us to interrogate what scripture really is.

Why does anyone bother to read scripture? Why do people who have never read it feel free to opine about it? Why do we read it in church, actually at every act of worship ever offered?

Some see the Bible as good for historical knowledge, a classic text, albeit one amongst many, and a key to understanding western civilisation, culture, literature and art. That is a very western centred idea, of course, and also begs the question why bother with the Bible any more than say, the Greek Myths or the works of Shakespeare.

Others see the Bible as a means to wisdom and the knowledge of God and that it is when it is Scripture.

It is not contradictory to hold both views: knowledge of the Bible does open up many cultural avenues, as well as being a resource for faith, but as Moberly says ‘the distinction is real, since the Bible, approached as Scripture, is not only a text in a class or perhaps an exhibit on display but belongs also in the life of Christians as a fundamental resource for understanding the realities of God and of life’.[2]

The problems come when we detach scripture from a living tradition and human reason and when we detach the Bible from the Living Word of God, Jesus Christ. It is an enduring question about which came first the bible or the church, and which carries greater authority, the Bible or the Church. It’s perhaps as futile as asking whether the chicken preceded the egg or vice versa.

A sixteenth century Vicar of Croydon, Rowland Philips, was being interrogated by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (probably just next door in the Old Palace) on just this question and was asked, ‘whether the apostles preached to the gentiles that which the evangelists wrote?’ In other words did the apostles, the early church, have a Bible from which they preached? Philips answered that ‘the evangelists wrote what the apostles preached’.[3] In other words, the proclamation preceded its writing down.

I hold to Philips view. That said: it matters little which preceded which because what matters is fidelity to Christ. The Bible never describes itself as the ‘Word of God’ but it does describe Jesus Christ as the ‘Word of God’.

‘Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures…’

The proclamation of the Resurrection precedes the written text. All scripture is to be read in the light of the Word of God, Jesus Christ, for Christ, who in the power of the Holy Spirit, it is who opens up the words on the page, such that they become the ‘lively oracles of God’ (cf Acts 7.37, 38).

May God’s holy word be ‘a lantern unto our feet and a light unto our paths, (Psalm 119.105) and may it be ‘sweeter than honey unto my mouth’ (Ps 119.103).

[1] R W L Moberly The Bible in a Disenchanted Age: The Enduring Possibility of Christian Faith.
[2] Moberly, p. 172.
[3] Peter Marshall, Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation. p. 257.