Sunday, 14 March 2021

The household of faith: a Mothering Sunday sermon

Preached at Croydon Minster on the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Mothering Sunday). Readings Colossians 3.12-17; John 19.25b-27

And from that hour the disciple took [Mary] into his own home. John 19.27b




One particular family has been very much in the news these past few days.


The pain, misunderstanding and hurt within the Royal Family has led the news bulletins and been the subject of a tremendous amount of speculation, misinformation and judgement.


I do not propose to add to that. Like all of us, I am not on the inside and cannot judge different claims to the truth being articulated. What we can all do is pray for those at the heart of this very public storm, whether we associate ourselves with one side or the other.


On this Mothering Sunday we might usefully reflect on the nature of family, not just the royals, and also a word that sounded quite old-fashioned until the last twelve months and that is ‘household’.


The New Testament has a word that can be translated as ‘family’ or as ‘household’ depending on the context. The Greek word is οἶκος (oikos). From that comes the word οἰκουμένη (oikoumene), from which we get the word ‘ecumenical’, which is about life in the global household or family of the church.


So let’s look at the two words.


Talk of family can sound quite nostalgic. For some it evokes warm feelings of comfort, safety and belonging where one is most free to be oneself; for others, it evokes feelings of fear, abuse or trauma where one is totally trapped.


That means if we talk about the church ‘family’ it will trigger in different people different associations. For some to know the church as family is profoundly reassuring, and for others profoundly frightening and potentially excluding.


The model of family that the church offers to us is as a place of mutual love, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation, united in prayer and service of one another.


This is a generous vision; and it is a challenge! The Christian family, at all levels, is a community where children and adults are nurtured in the ways of faith, hope and love.

And that can be hard as personalities grow and assert themselves. How that is handled is what family life is about, and doing it well shapes the wider community.


The word ‘household’ has come back into more widespread use in the pandemic, when rules have been applied about what ‘households’ can and can’t do. I realise I rarely used the word before the pandemic, except perhaps in reference to ‘The Royal Household’, which sounds very grand.


That said, in the Ordinal, the form of service to ordain priests the person to be ordained priest is asked, ‘Will you endeavour to fashion your own life and that of your household according to the way of Christ, that you may be a pattern and example to Christ’s people?


A household implies a gathering of people who may, or may not, be related biologically, but share a life in common and almost certainly at the heart of it eat together as companions.


In that way the church is also well described as the ‘household of faith’ (Galatians 6.10); people drawn together to live a life in common, as family or community of prayer and breaking bread together.


Just read the letters to the young churches in the New Testament and all the time the likes of St Paul are sometimes encouraging, sometimes cajoling, them to be households of reconciliation, mutual love and service. As St Paul puts it to the Colossians in our first reading today,


Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. (Colossians 3.12-13)


That is what the Christian οἶκος is all about. This is the vision Christian families and households, churches and communities draw from. Sometimes we get it all spectacularly wrong; and sometimes gloriously right.


This began with the formation of an οἶκος by Jesus himself from the cross. His blessed Mother Mary and the Beloved Disciple were not blood relatives or biologically connected, but they are invited into a relationship that forms the first οἶκος of faith. Their life comes from the water and blood flowing from the side of Christ.


To Mary he says, ‘here is your son’ and to the Beloved Disciple he says ‘here is the mother’ (cf Greek text Ἴδε μήτηρ σου). Mary becomes the mother of the Christian family, the Christian household, to shape us as servants of the will of God as she is. And today we give thanks and pray for mothers who mirror that life of Mary in Nazareth and later with the Beloved Disciple shaping a household and family of faith.


The Christian οἶκος is most itself when it stands patiently with each other, brothers and sisters, at the foot of the Cross of Christ. It is best revealed when people of every tribe, language and nation stand together and dwell together within the same household, the household of faith, into which we are baptised.


May our life together, as the household of faith in this place, be an example of reconciling love, mutual trust, ‘devoted to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers’. (cf Acts 2.42)

Sunday, 7 March 2021

Temples, bodies, sacrifice & encounter: A Lent sermon

 Preached as a sermon at Croydon Minster. Gospel text John 2.13-22.


‘[Jesus] was speaking of the temple of his body’ John 2.21




For centuries the temple in Jerusalem sat at the heart of Israelite religion.


The temple was the place of sacrifice and of encounter with the presence of God in all his holiness.


Housing the Ark of the Covenant, the very presence of God, the temple’s roots are deep in the story of God’s people.


Early on, in the account of the Exodus it is as a roving sanctuary, resting on the journey as the people of Israel moved through the wilderness before entering the Promised Land.


Eventually, brought by King David, God’s presence in the Ark came to rest on Mount Zion and his son, Solomon, began the work of building the temple to house God’s presence.


Solomon’s temple fell into disrepair when Israel was captive in exile in Babylon. Yet under the priests Ezra and Nehemiah it was restored, and by Jesus’ day it had recently been rebuilt by Herod the Great, taking some 46 years.


That brings us to this visit of Jesus to the Temple, as recorded in all four gospels (Matthew 21.12-17; Mark 11.15-19; Luke 19.45-48).


Indignant at what he finds Jesus sweeps away the buying and selling which is a spin off from the necessity to have animals to sacrifice in the temple.


Some see this as an example of Jesus’ anger, an example of his humanity. On one level that is right - Jesus has assumed our humanity - but it’s not that Jesus is ‘losing his rag’. As the disciples later remembered, it is ‘zeal for God’s house’ that has consumed him: it’s zeal; it’s passion.


Re-read today’s gospel and we see that what Jesus is doing, in the tradition of the prophets, is a purposeful, intentional act of resetting the Temple to its original purpose: sacrifice to God is not about trading animals; encountering God is not a commercial transaction.


The temple is to be a house of prayer, a place of encounter with the Living God.


What is new, and different from the prophets, is that this is a divine visitation on an institution that had become all too human: as the prophet Malachi had said, ‘the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple’ (Malachi 3.1).


The stone-built temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70AD, some forty years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. So where is the temple now? So where is the place of sacrifice now? Where is the place of encounter now?


The clear statement of our gospel today is that the temple is a temple of flesh: the temple of Jesus’ body. So, that’s the place of sacrifice; that’s the place of encounter with the living God. The Body of Christ is of course profoundly what the church is: you and me together, who feed on the Body of Christ in the sacrament.


This is the place of sacrifice, Jesus Christ gives his life that we might live. Jesus Christ is both priest and sacrificial victim: ‘worthy is the Lamb once slain’ (Revelation 5.12), not a lamb traded in the temple precinct, but the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.


The temple is not abolished by Jesus but transformed and relocated in his flesh.


Read the letter to the Hebrews and the Revelation to John and you see that the temple, recast by Christ, feeds the Christian life and imagination.


In its cleansing, the liturgical life of the temple - its rituals, customs, sacrifices and services - are transformed by Jesus and embraced by the church, not to exploit God’s people but to feed them.


So, then, where sacrifice and encounter with God take place there is the temple. In Christ this is a temple cleansed and fit for worship.


So as Christians when we speak of the temple we speak of Jesus Christ, we speak of our church building and we speak of ourselves.


Our church is a temple, a place of sacrifice – where lives are offered and life is received – and this holy place is a place of encounter.


And you are too.


As St Paul says, ‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?... God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple’. (1 Corinthians 3.16,17).


Christ’s Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, is the pioneer of this reality. The power of the Most High dwelt in her body, she gave her body – her human body, her woman’s body - as the Lord’s temple; her life was opened to receive his life.


This all points to the reverence and honour we have for the body as Christians: we believe in the resurrection of the body, the ultimate statement of optimism about human bodies.


So we reject the separation of body and soul, the ancient heresy of Manicheism, which sees the soul as too good or pure for one’s body; the body is seen as a terrible encumbrance on a free spirit, and it means life is only lived through the body and physical gratification. That is the path to self-loathing. It afflicts many in our culture today.


We are body and soul together.


Christ visits the temple of our bodies and as we pray in Lent, ‘wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin’ (Psalm 51.2). That is a prayer that Christ might purge us, turn over some tables and upset some of our cosy bargains with God, so that we can become more truly people of sacrifice, offering our lives to Christ, the Lamb of God, that he might give us life in this bloodless sacrifice of the Eucharist.


Let us pray that we might be worthy temples of the Holy Spirit, a worthiness which is not earned but is Christ’s gift, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer:


We offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee, that all we, who are partakers of this holy Communion, may be fulfilled with thy grace and heavenly benediction. (Book of Common Prayer, Order for Holy Communion)