Sunday, 23 June 2019

'What then will this child become?'

Preached at this Minster Church of St John the Baptist, Croydon at the Patronal Festival, 23rd June 2019. Gospel reading: Luke 1.57-66, 80.

‘What then will this child become?’ (Luke 1.66)


I don’t imagine that young John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, grew up wanting to be a train driver, an astronaut or even a Premier League footballer. Who knows? Perhaps he would be a priest like his dad!

It’s a question that children and young people get asked a lot: ‘what do you want to do when you grow up?’

That question usually refers to the sort of job or occupation someone might want. It’s a functional sort of question, and actually, I think, for most young people quite a dull one.

A rather different question is what will you become? That is the question being asked about John the Baptist. That is not so much about what you will do as what you will be and the essence of who you are.

That question – about becoming - is far more interesting and far more complex, and it’s not so patronising as to say ‘when you grow up’ - for which of the adults here is truly ‘grown up’, on the inside even if we appear to be on the outside?!

Becoming who we are called to be is a process that happens at all stages of life, and the real value is in the process, the becoming. We don’t ever, in this life, reach a state where we have completed everything and can grow in knowledge and love of God no more: we are always in the process, or on the journey of becoming.

This church is dedicated to John the Baptist: John the Baptist is our patron saint. It is instructive to ponder then, on this his feast, how John the Baptist can help us in our becoming as individual Christians and as a community of faith.

We are a week on from our church Vision Day when we were reflecting on questions of becoming: in a sense we were asking ‘what then will this church become?’

In our midst today are people, women and men, young and old, who are preparing for the Sacrament of Confirmation and Baptism next week. Those being baptised and confirmed are asking most explicitly, ‘what then will I become?’

Baptism is about finding an identity in Jesus Christ. This is what we have been exploring, young and old, in Confirmation preparation since Easter.

We have reflected on our own journey through life: where God has felt intensely near and felt far away; where we’ve believed and where we’ve doubted; where life has felt good and life has felt bad.

We have grappled with the nature of God as Trinity, on the essence of the Commandments in the Summary of the Law, to love God and our neighbours as ourselves.

We have reflected on prayer and the words Jesus taught us, and got our teeth into what it might mean to forgive and be forgiven. We have contemplated blessing and the life of blessing, and being blessed, that we are called to.

Confirmation candidates: you are signs of the life and growth that God gives to the church and we give thanks for you because your coming forward prompts all of us to go deeper too and to ponder our own becoming-in-Christ.

And what of us all, a community of faith in this place? We are in a journey of becoming as a church: not a temporal destination but an embodied spiritual journey lived out in the day to day.

Last Saturday we were able to capture many features and facets of who we believe we are, and who we believe, under God, we will become.

Tomorrow evening the PCC will begin to look at those many things and map out a way in which over the coming months we can be focus in on the things we discern to be essential to our ministry and mission in this church, parish and wider community. In other words, ‘what then will this Minster Church become?’

Here are some pointers that John the Baptiser, the Forerunner of Christ, might give us.

First, John is clear about who he is not. He has no claims or pretensions to be what he is not (John 1.19-28).

In the opening to his gospel John the Evangelist says, ‘There was a man sent from God whose name was John…he himself was not the light, but came to testify to the light’ (John 1.6-8).

John the Baptist is asked later in life, by priests and Levites, who he is and then is asked directly, ‘are you the Christ? ‘No’ is answers ‘I’m not’.

Knowing ourselves, individuals and as a community, well enough to know who we are not is a real gift and sign of maturity not a weakness.

It is very becoming!

It means we are not drawn into being defined by the fantasies, fears or expectations of other people. It means we can identify a ‘greater yes’ in our lives and act out of that.

Like John, let’s be clear who we are not: let’s also be clear who we are!

So, secondly, for John the ‘greater yes’ is found in beholding Jesus, the Lamb of God. ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1.29). Behold – don’t just gawp!

Beholding is more than just looking: it’s an adoring encounter.

It’s the message for which the world yearns, without always being aware of it.

Isaiah promised one who would come, the herald of good tidings to Zion, ‘Behold your God’ (Isaiah 40.1-11). At the heart of our life is our liturgy and worship and there at its heart is Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, whom we behold in the sacrament with reverence, tenderness and love.

John even beheld Jesus is his mother womb – and leapt for joy. In who we become it’s about all generations, young and old.

Finally, let’s recall that John is to be found ministering by a river (actually in a river). I have commented more than once that our church is located by a river, albeit one that is covered up and boxed in. From time to time the water seeps out, but the sparkle, life and teeming fish of it are not to be seen, they are hidden and eradicated.

The scriptures speak of rivers flowing in the barren places: ‘Restore our fortunes, O Lord, as the river beds in the desert’ (Psalm 126.5). ‘I am about to do a new thing’, says the Lord, ‘now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert (Isaiah 43.19).

This church is not in a stagnant tributary: the water of life flows here. At our Vision Day we caught sight of that sparkling life afresh. The river of faith, hope and love here is seen to be teeming with ideas, if not fish. We want that river to flow out of here bringing life to our parish and wider community.

Becoming - as in ‘who will this church become’ ‘ who you and I will become’ - is a process: the Vision Day was not an end, but part of the discernment  of the ministry and mission of this place in its greater yes, in its beholding and making known the love of Jesus Christ.

We know what became of John the Baptist, the forerunner and beholder of Christ: he gave his life, his all, in witness. What will become of us, what will become of you?

A church, a Christian, beholding Christ, and saying, with Our Lady Mary, a ‘greater yes’ to God, has a future with hope (Jeremiah 29.11) as the Lord promises.

Monday, 17 June 2019

'You stand on holy ground' A sermon for Trinity Sunday

First preached as a sermon at Croydon Minster on Trinity Sunday 2019

‘You stand on holy ground’ (Exodus 3.5)


Tonight’s readings (Exodus 3.1-15; John 3.1-17) present us with the mystery of God: God in wind and flame, and yet also a God found in silence and indefinable.

God as mystery; God in history; God through love.

Wind and flame evokes our celebration of Pentecost last week.

Then we recalled the coming of the Holy Spirit, a Person of the Trinity, who is the fullness of God, without denying the divinity of the Father and the Son, who comes in mighty rushing wind and tongues of flame.

Today we celebrate the Holy Trinity, a celebration of the Unity and the fullness of God, a fullness and plenitude that spills into our lives and is made known in encounter-in-love with Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The flames of our first reading speak of the mystery of God to be encountered and yet not touched. Moses encounters the fullness of God, the One who speaks and says ‘I am who I am’.

Moses is told to remove his sandals for he stands on holy ground. The sense of the holiness of God is palpable in this encounter. In it too is the full presence of God. The Father, the source of all, speaks: ‘I am’.

The flames point us to the Holy Spirit, the voice that speaks of the redemption and deliverance of Israel places the Son, the Eternal Word, Jesus Christ as the heart of this, before his incarnation. Herein is the Trinity: Father, Son and Spirit.

The wind of our second reading, blowing where it will, speaks of God who is beyond our grasping, beyond holding on to, beyond categories that we understand.

Nicodemus encounters Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is not concept, Jesus Christ is a person, a human being, yet the fullness of God is pleased to dwell in him.

A most beautiful icon captures this divinity and humanity in Jesus Christ. It shows the Blessed Virgin Mary bearing Jesus in the midst of the flames of the Burning Bush: neither his divinity nor humanity is compromised or consumed in who he is.

We see that describing God (who cannot be described), describing God as Trinity states the Unity of God, and the Diversity of God.

How can we describe mystery? How can we describe love? We can describe its impact, we can use the most beautiful and evocative of language, but that language quickly runs out.

That’s why there is a strand of theology known as apophatic, or negative, theology, which acknowledges that as soon as we start speaking of God we become tongue tied.

The language of Trinity guards how we speak of God, constantly checking and restraining our fantasises and projections onto God. The Book of Common Prayer contains the Creed of St Athanasius. It is a dense, but rich, account of the Trinity and guards any language we put on God at every turn.

When we speak of God we have intellectually to remove the sandals from our feet, not because our minds don’t matter, but because ultimately our quest to search out God, to measure, categorise, handle, label God is fruitless. We move from mind to heart: comprehension to apprehension.

This is how we journey into the Mystery of God.

As the Letter to the Hebrews puts it: ‘You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words make the hearers beg that not another word be spoken… but you have come to the city of the Living God (Hebrews 12. 18, 19, 22)

The Trinity roots us in the life of the Divine, and that’s what we celebrate today: God as mystery; God in history; God in love.

Monday, 10 June 2019

Terrifying. Exciting. Bewildering: A Pentecost Sermon

Preached as a sermon at the Parish Eucharist for Pentecost, Sunday 9th June, 2019 at Croydon Minster. Saturday 15th June is the Minster's Vision Day

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful people, and kindle in us the fire of God’s love.


How terrifying. How exciting. How bewildering.

The first Day of Pentecost was all those things and more.

The disciples and crowds were terrified that day, they were excited and they were bewildered.

The rush of a violent wind; tongues of fire licking amongst them and resting on them: something remarkable and dramatic was going on here.

The tongues of fire gave way to the different tongues, tongues of speech, languages from near and far, incomprehensibly comprehensible, all speaking of ‘God’s deeds of power’ (Acts 2.11).

The response of the crowds, both the locals and devout pilgrims to Jerusalem, was one of amazement, perplexity and scepticism.

It fell to Peter, the rock on which Christ builds his church (Matthew 16.18), to interpret what is going on.

This isn’t the ecstatic outburst of a drunken rabble, he says, this is the Holy Spirit testifying to the majesty of God, to God’s mighty deeds and to the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Peter’s interpretation roots what is happening in what has gone before, so he quotes the prophet Joel:

In the last days, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams’ (Acts 2.17)

Peter looks back in order to look forward.

Dreams and visions of young and old. Sounds familiar? Yes, on Saturday we have the chance to share our dreams and vision for what we discern for this Church in the coming years, what its particular gifts have been, what they are today and what they might be in the future.

The ‘dreams and visions’ that Peter quotes in Acts are not utopian fantasies; they are rooted in the purposes of God.

Likewise the inspirational Jean Vanier who died recently spoke powerfully about vision and planning which could apply to us. He writes:

Too much detailed intellectual planning … can, in fact, stifle the Spirit, just as a desire to remain open to anything and  everything and a refusal to clarify goals, can also prevent growth… God gives us hearts so that we may be inspired by his Love and his Spirit, but he also gives us minds, so that we may understand, clarify, discern and read what he is saying and giving in and through life.[1]

On that Day of Pentecost the crowds asked ‘what does this mean?’ We ask: ‘what does this means for us today?’

The account of the Day of Pentecost remains at the same time terrifying, exciting and bewildering.

And in the terror, excitement and bewilderment of the Spirit is life: abundant life. As Jesus says in St John’s gospel, ‘It is the spirit that gives life…The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life’ (John 6.63).

At the speaking of God’s word the Holy Spirit moved over the waters at the beginning of creation bringing light and life; the Holy Spirit who was breathed into Adam’s nostrils brings life to humanity; the Holy Spirit who overshadowed Mary that she might become the Mother of the God incarnate, Jesus Christ, the New Adam.

It was the Holy Spirit who descended upon Jesus, not in violent winds or in fire, but in the gentle form of a dove when baptised by John in the River Jordan.

The Holy Spirit is poured out on you and me in our baptism and confirmation as Christians, birthing us to new life in Christ.

The Holy Spirit is called down upon bread and wine making Jesus Christ present in his life-giving Body and Blood.

It is the Holy Spirit who kindles in us the fire of God’s love in order that we may be a blessing to the world and recognise Christ in all people.

In the Spirit, we prepare for our church vision day this coming Saturday.

Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost sounds uncannily like Croydon town centre on a typical Saturday, crowds of people speaking a multiplicity or languages, some ready to hear, some ready to reject the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Spirit breathes into a world of anxiety, pain and death. As Peters in our own day our task is to interpret the signs of God to our generation and to declare that the doors of life are open to all who would walk into God’s kingdom.

What will that mean for this church?

In February Bishop Christopher shared his vision for us, speaking of the Minster as a holy place within the hustle and bustle of an ever-changing, swirling, colourful Croydon.

Three weeks ago Bishop Jonathan shared with us his vision of the Minster as a hub of mission and service to the wider community of Croydon.

Already people have shared with me some of their vision, hopes and aspirations for this place as we look to the future.

I have a deepening sense of the character of this church as being open to God and open to all people.

So we come together and, as the Prophet Joel said, ‘your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams’.

As Peter reminded the crowds this is not fantasy land, but an earnest seeking after God’s ways and purposes for us, here, now, in our day.

It will then be my task, and the task of our Parochial Church Council, to discern and interpret what the Spirit is saying to this church (cf Revelation 2.7 passim) as we look towards ‘the future with hope’ (Jeremiah 29.11).

The life-giving Spirit of Pentecost blows and burns in the life of this church today. It may be terrifying, exciting and bewildering.

Terrifying: so that we dare to speak of the mighty acts of God ourselves and testify to his mercies.

Exciting: so that our horizons are expanded, our vision enlarged and expectations raised.

Bewildering: so that we come to understand that our plans are empty until fulfilled with the presence of the Holy One.

Today, and on Saturday pray that, equipped by the Spirit, we as a church young and old, women and men may embrace God’s future for us with hope, serve our parish and sing God’s praise now and to all eternity.

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful people, and kindle in us the fire of God’s love.

[1] Jean Vanier, Community and Growth (2nd edition) DLT: 2007, p. 111