Sunday, 28 February 2021

Take up your cross

 First preached as a sermon at Croydon Minster on the Second Sunday of Lent, 2021



A story goes that during a persecution of Christians in first century Rome their Bishop fled. The Bishop was none other than the Apostle St Peter. Christians were being crucified like their Lord and Peter was running away. As he did so he saw the risen Jesus walking towards the city. Peter asked him, ‘Quo vadis?’ (where are you going?) to which Jesus replied, ‘Romam eo iterum crucifigi (‘I am going to Rome to be crucified again’). From that encounter Peter gains the courage to continue his ministry and returns to the city, where he is martyred by being crucified upside-down.




There is a bitterly poignant moment deep in the heart of Holy Week. Jesus has been arrested and brought to the High Priest’s house; his death on the cross is imminent.


In the crowd that’s gathered Peter is recognised as one of Jesus’ followers, but Peter flatly denies it. As St Luke records:


The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly. (Luke 22.61,62.)


Having heard this morning’s gospel there’s an eerie inevitability that it would come to that with Peter.


Throughout the gospels Peter wrestles with himself: he recognises Jesus as the Christ and is devoted to him; but also he can’t bear the cost of what this all means.


Peter is a man of contrasts:

Peter is the Rock on which Christ will build his Church (Matthew 16.18) and he is the denier;

Peter is praised by Jesus for his declarations of faith and, as we see in today’s gospel, also rebuked by Jesus as ‘Satan’, an adversary, opposing Christ’s purposes.


We all have an inner Peter: at times we can be passionate about our faith in Christ and at other times deniers. We can’t just look at Peter and shrug or tut; it is ourselves we see.


So what’s Peter’s problem? Or rather what is your problem? What’s the Church’s problem?


The issue is being so earthbound that we don’t, won’t or can’t see the Cross as the path to life.


Peter was so scandalised by the reference to the Cross – suffering, rejection, death - that he even took Jesus aside and rebuked him. It was too much for Peter to stomach; perhaps he saw what was coming, that the way of discipleship is the Way of the Cross.


Peter’s denial of the Cross means that he has set his mind on earthly concerns and not heavenly ones. In St Augustine’s terms Peter is preferring the Earthly City and not desiring the City of God.


Peter has yet to grasp St Paul’s phrase in the letter to the Colossians, ‘Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth’ (Colossians 3.1-4).


Peter’s mind is set on Peter, not on Christ. There’s the challenge for you and me today: setting our minds on Christ publicly and proudly.


Martyrdom is the most extreme outcome of setting your mind, and living your life, in Christ: and there are Christians around the world who are living that, now, today.


Do you find yourself wondering why they don’t just keep quiet about their faith, keep their heads down? If so, that’s your inner Peter coming out.


Martyrdom is a remote prospect for us, but there is much in our culture that assails the Gospel today, that calls us to walk the way of the Cross.


Christianity is routinely ridiculed, caricatured, diminished and pushed aside in our culture. The vision of the reign of God is being replaced by the reign of self, the culture of ‘me first, me alone’. A culture of grievance, shame and blame is flourishing: the things of earth, rather than reconciliation, forgiveness and peace; the things of God.


Our culture is not beyond redemption. There are many people of goodwill, but the signs of the times show that people’s concerns are with themselves first and God a distant second. (Remember, though, Jesus described his generation as ‘perverse and adulterous).


Now is the time to witness to the way of Jesus Christ more than ever: proclaiming faith, hope and love; being of service to our neighbour out of love for Christ; honouring the body, cherishing the young and the frail; drawing people into worship that sets their minds on the stuff of heaven; handing on the Faith humbly and confidently.


Now is the time to reorient our hearts, minds and lives: setting our bearings and compass to be followers of Christ, who died for us and for our salvation.


Will you walk, with Peter and with the Crucified and Risen Lord, on the Way of the Cross back towards the City of God?

Sunday, 21 February 2021

Christ in the wilderness


Preached as a sermon at Croydon Minster, the First Sunday of Lent, 2021

‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;

repent and believe in the good news (Mark 1.15)




This is the third time since Advent Sunday that we have been given this passage of St Mark’s gospel.


At its heart is the Baptism of Christ, but we have come at it from different angles.


First, in Advent, we read it through the lens of the ministry of John the Baptist; then on the Feast of the Baptism of Christ we pondered the mystery of Christ’s Baptism itself; and now, in these forty days of Lent, our focus is on what happens after his immersion in the waters of Baptism, when he is driven out into a place where there is precious little water: the wilderness.


The whole scene is dramatic. It begins with the almost violent image of the heavens torn open, ripped apart like a piece of cloth.


From that fissure comes the tranquillity of the Spirit, just like a dove, who rests on Jesus, as he is told by God the Father, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (v11).


Then, just as a breeze can pick up and blow hard as a mighty wind, so the Spirit’s breath picks up and drives Jesus out. Into the wilderness. Immediately. No hanging about.


The relationship declared at the Baptism – of intimacy between the Father and the Son - is now to be demonstrated in the driving power of the Spirit out in the wilderness.


The wilderness is by any terms, and certainly in the scriptures, a place of challenge, devoid of life. But Jesus brings life to the wilderness, so he is not alone and without comfort: ‘he was with the wild beasts, and the angels comforted him’ (v13). The beasts are not a threat, they are with him.


There are echoes here of the Garden of Creation, where the ‘creatures of the field and birds of the air are created’ (Genesis 2.19). In that Garden Satan comes to disrupt, humanity colludes and sin enters the world. In the wilderness, by contrast, Satan is faced down, humanity in the New Adam, Jesus Christ, rejects the Prince of Darkness, and the power of sin is annulled.


From the Garden of Creation flowed mighty rivers. Life flows from Christ. At the heart of the garden was a tree; at the heart of the Christian life is the Tree of the Cross.


And all this, the Church proclaims, is Good News! It’s the Good News of water flowing in a wilderness; light shining in the darkness; life triumphing over death.


Many of us are in a wilderness at the moment. It may be a wilderness brought on by the pandemic, or brought on by quite different circumstances.


In our wilderness, Christ is with us, bringing life to us, generating within us a New Creation, saying ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me’ (John 7.37). And as St Paul declares, ‘If anyone is in Christ, there is a New Creation!’ (2 Corinthians 5.17). Good news indeed.


As the Israelites were fed by God with miraculous manna from heaven as they trudged round the wilderness of Sinai for forty years, so may we be fed, in our wilderness, with the bread that comes down from heaven so that we hunger and thirst no more.


Make me a clean heart: A homily for Ash Wednesday


Preached at Croydon Minster, Liturgy of Ash Wednesday

‘For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks’ (Matthew 12.34).




The gospel reading we have just heard, read in the context of Ash Wednesday, calls us to almsgiving, prayer and fasting, which, along with penitence, we know as the traditional features of Lent.


And it calls us to ponder deeply what we really treasure, because that will be a sign of where our hearts truly lie.


This is what acts of piety are, and what their outcome is meant to be: getting our hearts right with God; righteousness.


And this task of practicing our piety, our righteousness, is for the private sphere. You could almost say Jesus calls for ‘piety distancing’.


For those Christians given to be highly sociable, activist and extravert that is really rather hard to get their heads around. Privacy sounds very individualistic – me and my God - privacy is what they crave at out of the way early morning services, isn’t it?


This isn’t about a worship-style choice or temperament, but the heart of righteousness.


Piety, as taught by Jesus, is unshowy, seeks no flattery or admiration from others but rather focuses on the intensity of our relationship with our Maker and Redeemer.


The refrain throughout this passage is when you give alms (charitable giving), when you pray, when you fast, do these things for ‘your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you’ (vv4, 6, 18)


We have all been driven out of public spaces into the private realm by the lockdown. That has been uncomfortable for so many people. People are finding it hard to live with partners, family members, or households.


Or perhaps it’s just they find it hard to be with themselves, whether living alone or in company.


No wonder there is such widespread poor mental and spiritual health, and not just because of the pandemic.


The hardest person to confront is yourself. The hardest place to enter is one’s own heart.


Lent is the time for ‘spiritual audit’ and a deep heart check-up.


What in my faith has nourished me in the pandemic? Where have I found myself bereft? Ask those questions, and if you want help with them, be bold, ask: that’s is what I and your priests are here to offer, and there are other wise fellow Christians you can speak to amongst our number. What are the ‘tools of the spiritual life’ as St Benedict calls them, that you need now?


One outcome of the pandemic must surely be for us to re-learn the disciplines - the structures if you prefer - of our lives of prayer. (And that’s for now, not just when Boris says it’s okay to mingle again).


Ultimately in Lent we are invited to go deep into the chamber of our own hearts. It is an invitation into what the mystics call the ‘interior life’. That is what the action of penitence is all about: as tonight’s psalm says, ‘Make me a clean heart, O God : and renew a right spirit within me’ (Psalm 51.11)


And what do we find in our hearts? Perhaps it’s anger, bile, frustration, vitriol; perhaps it’s faith, hope, love, endurance, gentleness. Perhaps it’s some of all of those.


Lent gives us grace and space to turn in and examine our hearts and the places we don’t really want to go, because as Jesus says, later in St Matthew’s gospel, ‘For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks’ (Matthew 12.34). After all, he says, the place where what you most value, what is most you and where what you treasure is, it is there your heart will be also…

Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Light, life & glory in the face of Jesus Christ

First preached as homily at Croydon Minster, Sunday 7 February, Second Sunday before Lent (Sexagesima). Colossians 1.15-20; John 1.1-14



God is the creator of all things, the heavens, the earth and ‘all that therein is’ (Psalm 24.1); and yet the same God, humbles himself, takes human flesh and shares our existence. That is the wonder of the Incarnation; something absolutely fundamental to the Christian faith.


And that is how St Paul can say in our first reading, ‘Christ is the image’ – in Greek ‘the icon’ – ‘of the invisible God’.


Our God is made visible in the in the person, in the body of Jesus Christ.


In response to that visibility of God we might say, with the psalmist, ‘My heart hath talked of thee, Seek ye my face : Thy face, Lord, will I seek.’ (Psalm 27.9).


It’s hard to see faces in a sea of face coverings!  And yet God is unveiled to us; we seek God’s face.


Gazing upon the face of the human Jesus Christ is to gaze upon the very face of God.


What do we see in the Divine Face of Jesus? We see the face of God and we see a human face with its characteristic features and contours; essentially a face like yours and mine.


In that Divine Face we see both Christ and our potential.


The wonderful thing is that to be made in the image of God does not impose upon us passing aesthetic values of beauty, perfection, fashion or an ideal; the image of God goes much deeper than that.


For the Christlike face is the face that reflects God’s light and life: whether that face is male or female; young or old; Black, brown or white.


So we gaze deeply upon the Divine Face of Jesus; in that face is life; in that face is light; in that face is glory.


As the psalm puts it, ‘For with thee, O LORD, is the well of life : and in thy light shall we see light’. (Psalm 36.9), and St John says ‘and we have seen his glory’ (John 1.14)


Life, light, and glory are hard to glimpse at the moment in time of lockdown. Yet let’s not think they exist only at the end of a tunnel. For the eyes of faith life, light, and glory are visible now, glimpsable now, in the face of Jesus Christ.


On my retreat last week, which I participated in at home online from the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, I was able to spend time during what is known as ‘Holy Hour’ simply to gaze upon Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar.


It was as if gazing upon the Face of Jesus Christ, Word made Flesh, God visible in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.


There is Word made flesh: Christ visible and present in our midst as he is in the Eucharist.


That hour paused, as it were, the moment of hearing the words of Jesus - ‘this is my body, this is my blood’ – and enabled a sustained, fixed gaze upon the face of Christ.


That is way of contemplative prayer, placing oneself in the presence of the Creator in his earthly presence as Word made flesh, simply to be gazed upon, adored, beheld and loved.


Let us seek to gaze upon Christ, the Word made flesh: and may we each see his life and light, his grace, truth and glory.