Monday, 13 June 2022

What kind of God? A Trinity Sunday sermon


Proverbs 8.1-4, 22-31 Before the earth came into being, Wisdom was born

Romans 5.1-5 The love of God has been poured into our hearts

John 16.12-15 The Spirit of truth will lead you to the complete truth




How often, I wonder, do we ever really think about God.


It seems an odd question to ask in a church.


After all, isn’t part of coming to church about believing in God?


We refer to God a lot in prayers and hymns, we claim insights into God’s will and say that God is interested in our world and in us.


Do we ever really ponder God? Is the worship and adoration of God front and centre of our hearts and minds when we come to church?


Jesus Christ, as shown in today’s gospel reading is all about setting us aright with God, and all that flows from that in how we think and speak and act.


He notes that the sheer weight of the mystery of God is unbearable without him, and without the Holy Spirit of God to continue to lead us into all truth.


It’s easy, and convenient, to dodge talking about God even in church.


Perhaps we are like footballers who talk endlessly about 4-4-2 formations, passing, heading, crossing and the offside rule, but never consider the nature of the ball they kick.


It’s a trivial example perhaps, but do we really consider the mystery at the heart of faith: God?


Ironically atheists seem to think more about the existence and nature of God than many people of faith.


Atheism, an emphatic belief that there is no God to be understood or worshipped, challenges us to consider who God is, and who God isn’t.


Often an atheist asks, ‘what kind of God would allow such and such?’ It’s as if they want to believe in a god, but it’s a question that Trinity Sunday demands too: what kind of God do we believe in?


It matters what we believe about God; it matters that we believe in God.


The object of our worship is where we locate our heart, our desires, our purpose.


Human beings have the capacity to make all sorts of things their gods.


Many ancient religions and contemporaryspiritualities’ regard elements of creation, on earth or in the skies, as things to be worshipped: for the ancient Egyptians it was Ra, the sun god.


Those heading off to Stonehenge at the end of the month for the summer solstice will also reverence the sun.


After all, the sun was, and is, a source of life, with power and energy, light and warmth.


But neither the sun – s-u-n – nor moon, nor rivers, nor springs nor anything else in all creation brings us to life, has the capacity help us see beyond ourselves.


The sun cannot save us from the mirk and mire of human existence. As Genesis notes, in creation God put the sun in its place (cf Genesis 1.17-18) and saw that it is good.


Nature is compelling and beautiful, but it is a gift to us to be cherished and tended, but it is not our god.


Psalm 8, sung this morning, is a beautiful meditation on just that theme.


This idolising continues in contemporary culture when parents make gods of their children; advertising makes a god of the toned and lithe human body; food (cf Philippians 3.19), drink, even fun, are seen as the highest Good.


If those are the forms of devotion that we see today this is because the kind of god that is ultimately believed in is the autonomy of the individual: I am the beginning and ending of my own reality; creator, producer and star of my own drama.


And if I am my own god, then everything is on my terms.


That is the secular creed: I believe in me.


A Christian cannot ultimately say ‘I believe in me; I believe in my own power to sort out and save my life’.


What we do profess, we say at the beginning of the Creed: ‘Credo in unum Deum’ - I believe in one God.


The Creed is the distilled account of our witness to who God reveals Godself to be  and our response to the atheist question: what kind of God?


In the Creeds we describe the God who is ‘above all things and through all things and in all things’ (Epistle I to Serapion, 28-30, St Athanasius Office of Readings, The Most Holy Trinity).


St Athanasius echoes this: ‘Yes, certainly “above all things”’ as the Father, the first principle and origin; and truly “through all things” that is through the Word, and finally “in all things” in the Holy Spirit’.


In making that profession of faith we are claiming something deeply true about God – the oneness of God – and about ourselves.


Since when we say ‘I believe in God’ we are saying that the source of all that is, seen and unseen, is not generated by our own imaginations, not a projection of our fantasies about ourselves, but we are rooted in the invisible God who is made visible in Jesus Christ and continues to be known to us in the Holy Spirit.


This God, our God, is known intimately in his face, the face of Jesus Christ. And we seek his face in the sacraments, in prayer, in scripture.


To see Christ is to see the Father, that is, to see the God who is both beyond ourselves, and ‘Emmanuel: God with us’ (Matthew 1.18), who diverts us from our self-destructive ways and the idols we would so merrily create for ourselves.


‘What kind of God?’ asks the atheist.


Trinity Sunday is the annual invitation card to the day by day placing of God at the very heart and centre of our lives.


God, the Holy Trinity, is not a mystery to be explained but an invitation to be accepted.


Responding to the invitation we fix our gaze on the face of Christ and are drawn into the love of God that is both perfect within the Godhead and spills out into human existence.


We can say, with any atheist, that we do not believe in a god who is capricious, grumpy, ill-willed or takes pleasure from natural disaster or devastating illness.


Rather the God in whom we believe condescends to share our humanity, comes to renew creation and shape us into the people he created us to be in the first place.


Only in God’s power, and not our own, can we overcome the tendency to be possessive, controlling, manipulative and self-destructive.


All that is God’s is declared to us by Jesus Christ and, in the power of the Holy Spirit, we are led by the hand into all truth, that is the truth of God.


At the heart of Catholic Christian faith is this deep yet ever generating mystery: God the maker of all things wills to save us from our self-destruction in the person of Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit: three persons, yet always One God, to whom be power and glory, majesty and dominion now and in all eternity. Amen.

Wednesday, 8 June 2022

'Thou the anointing Spirit art': a sermon for the Jubilee on the Day of Pentecost


‘Zadok the priest, and Nathan the prophet, anointed Solomon king.

And all the people rejoiced.

Alleluia. Amen.’


That text has been used at coronations for centuries and is immortalised in Handel’s setting of it sung just now. Handel’s music even inspired the UEFA Champion’s League anthem, composed by a local Croydon boy, the composer and former pupil at Trinity School, Tony Britten.


But the inspiration we look to this evening is in reflecting on 70 years of the Queen’s Christian service when Elizabeth II was crowned, and anointed with sacred oil, in Westminster Abbey in 1953, following her Accession to the throne 70 years ago this year.


‘Geoffrey the archbishop, and Michael, bishop of Durham, anointed Elizabeth queen. And all the people rejoiced. Alleluia. Amen.’


And we still rejoice and give thanks for her as we look back over seventy years of her reign.


The example of Her Majesty the Queen these last 70 years has been one of exemplary service.


Without doubt she has committed herself body, mind and spirit to the calling to which she was called. And she constantly refers us to her Christian faith as the source of the endurance and hope that we see in the tireless service she had offered, and continues to offer, to this nation and the Commonwealth.


And today there is a happy confluence of the celebration of the Queen’s Jubilee with the Day of Pentecost, Whitsunday, when we celebrate the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the Church.


One of the words associated with the Holy Spirit and with coronation is this word, ‘anointing’. As an ancient hymn to the Holy Spirit puts it:


Thou the anointing Spirit art,

who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart.


On a practical level anointing is the act of pouring or smearing oil - we’re thinking olive oil here - onto a person’s body.


In Christian and biblical practice, such as the anointing of King Solomon, this outward anointing is on the head, the hands or the chest.


But the inward anointing is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is the anointing of cleansing and preparation, of blessing, empowerment and joy. Anointing, outward and inner, strengthens and equips.


This power of anointing flows from the Holy Spirit in the name of the Anointed One, Jesus Christ. Anointed One in Hebrew is ‘Mesach’ משיח from which we get the English word, ‘Messiah’. Anointed One in Greek is Christos, from which we get the word ‘Christ’.


The one anointed is touched by Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.


On Maundy Thursday, at what is known as the Chrism Mass, the Bishop blesses three oils for use in the church. The Oil of Catechumens; the Oil of the Sick and the Oil of Chrism.


Oil of the Catechumens is pure olive oil.  To prepare a candidate for baptism they are anointed with this sacred oil. The sign of the cross is marked on their heads as they are told to fight valiantly against the world, the flesh and the devil. This echoes the wrestlers of ancient times who would anoint the bodies with oil so that the opponent could not get a grip on them and defeat them.  This anointing is to help the baptised to ward off evil, avoid temptation and possess the faith necessary to carry the cross of Christ throughout life.


Oil of the Sick is also pure olive oil. For this anointing the priest lays hands on the person who is unwell, prays and anoints the person by smearing the oil in the form of a cross on the forehead and hands.


Through this sacrament, God gives the sick person grace and strength to bear the illness or infirmity. And it is not unknown that the power of this anointing brings spiritual, emotional and even physical healing.


The third oil, holy chrism oil, is olive oil mixed with balsam. The oil symbolizes strength, and the fragrant balsam represents the “aroma of Christ” (2 Cor 2:15). Anointing with chrism oil signifies the gift of the Holy Spirit. So much so that in the act of blessing this oil the Bishop breathes gently upon it as well as speaking words over it.


The holy chrism oil is used to consecrate someone or something to God’s service.


It is used when people are confirmed as the bishop traces the Sign of the Cross with chrism oil on the forehead of the one being confirmed and, using the person’s Christian name, says, “be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.”


It is during the ordination of a priest and the consecration of a bishop. It is the anointing oil used in the consecration of a church and the blessing of an altar.


It is the Oil of Chrism that was used to anoint Her Majesty the Queen at the Coronation.


For the Queen her royal anointing equipped her for royal service. That is a task given only to her. That anointing is the source of her strength and wisdom, for it imparts the gift of the anointing Holy Spirit of God upon her. So sacred is this act that there is no photograph or film of it.


With the Queen, who is a fellow Christian - albeit she is Supreme Governor of our Church – we share in the life of the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ. And that is an expression of the gifts of the Holy Spirit that equip us all to different strengths and talents so we all make up the diversity and strength of the One Body of Christ.


Solomon, who was anointed king by Zadok and Nathan, was given the opportunity by God to name whatever he wanted as king. He asked for the gift of wisdom, that wisdom of which we heard in our first reading from the Book of Proverbs, as Divine Wisdom says :


I have good advice and sound wisdom;

   I have insight, I have strength.

By me kings reign,

   and rulers decree what is just;

by me rulers rule,

   and nobles, all who govern rightly. Proverbs 8.1-16


Wisdom is primarily a gift of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who helps us see that the knowledge and love of God is the beginning of wisdom. We see in Elizabeth II, our sister in Christ and our Queen, someone who has rooted her life of royal service in the knowledge and love of God, and who in turn has received the grace, strength and wisdom of one anointed by that same Spirit.


At coronation the Queen was anointed with holy Chrism Oil on her head, throat and hands so that she would hold Christ always in mind, breathe in the Holy Spirit of God and serve his people. All this she does as someone, like you and me, sharing the call to be part of the life of the Jesus Christ, so that together with her we will glimpse what our second reading from the Book of Revelation promised:


‘But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in [the Holy City], and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads’. Revelation 22.4


May God bless the Queen, and each one of us, and may the Holy Spirit rest upon her now and in the time to come.

Pentecost and Jubilee

Preached at the Parish Eucharist at Croydon Minster, 5th June 2022

Acts 2:1-21; They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak

Romans 8:14-17; The Spirit bears witness that we are children of God

John 14:8-17, 25-27 The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, will teach you all things




When the date of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations was announced some while back I looked at the calendar and worried it would clash unhelpfully with today’s celebration of Pentecost.


Why would I worry?


Well, the Day of Pentecost, along with Christmas, Easter and Ascension Days, is one of the biggest festivals of the Church. If it was overshadowed by another occasion, however significant like the Platinum Jubilee, might we be in danger of placing the Queen above the mysteries of God?


The flip side is that some people may come to church today to thank God for the Queen’s seventy year reign and wonder what all this talk about the Holy Spirit is!


At the heart of my conundrum was this: do we emphasise the Church’s celebration or our national celebration?


Happily, it is not an ‘either/or’ day. This Day of Pentecost is a Jubilee day!


There is good Biblical precedent for saying that.


The term Pentecost comes from the Greek Πεντηκοστή (Pentēkostē) meaning "fiftieth". It refers to the Jewish festival of Shavuot celebrated on the fiftieth day after Passover. It is also known as the "Feast of Weeks" and the "Feast of 50 days" in rabbinic tradition.


The Christian Day of Pentecost comes fifty days after the Christian Passover of Easter is celebrated.


Likewise, in the Bible, a jubilee is a special year of remission of sins and universal pardon. In Leviticus, a jubilee year (Hebrew: יובלāl) is mentioned to occur every 50th year; during which slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven, property restored to rightful ownership: in other words, the mercies of God would be particularly manifest.[1]


The Church has proclaimed jubilees for special occasions throughout the centuries from around the 13th century. The most recent ‘Great Jubilee’ was that of the beginning of the third millennium of Christianity in 2000.


The term Jubilee has also been applied to a ‘Holy Year’ which marks a special celebration of God’s mercy.


That is how, in our national life, we have come to refer to a jubilee as a special year of celebration of a significant event, hence the jubilee of a monarch. Though of course the Queen has exceeded a mere fifty years on the throne!


The Day of Pentecost is always a jubilee of fifty days from Passover, and the feature of this jubilee is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.


It is this Spirit that is poured out upon the Apostles on the Day of Pentecost to equip them to be witnesses to the love of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. The nations represented by the people who spoke different languages gathered in Jerusalem, that first Pentecost, point to this.


Indeed, in time the Holy Spirit drove the disciples out from Jerusalem, a geographical backwater really, through the nations, to the very heart of the most dominant Empire the world had hitherto known, to Rome. And in time, through the Holy Spirit, the way of Jesus Christ became sovereign even in the Roman Empire.


That is a feature of the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit can equip us to do that which is beyond our human capacities and horizons. That is why we can also talk about the intimacy of the Holy Spirit, in what we call our spirit-ual life.


The Holy Spirits renews, equips and anoints us to service.


In Christian tradition at baptism each of us – through water and the Spirit – are equipped to shape our lives after the example, and intimately united with Jesus Christ.


At baptism, in the Church’s teaching, you are anointed as prophet, priest and king.


Each Christian is anointed with oil signifying the Spirit, the Comforter, to speak in the name of Jesus – the prophet; to offer spiritual sacrifices in union with Jesus – the priest; and to reign in love and service in the church – the king.


At a baptism the new Christian is anointed. At ordination the new priest is anointed. At Coronation the new monarch is anointed.


Anointing gives us the capacity to go beyond ourselves. Think of it like this. I have a new electric bike. I pedal hard, but can only go so far up a hill without being exhausted. The battery gives me power to accomplish what I can’t do totally on my own.


It’s a bit of a crass example, but the Holy Spirit is the power of God in your life the enables you to go beyond yourself and the limitations of body, mind and spirit.


That is why the sovereign is anointed at the Coronation. It gives an ordinary person an extraordinary capacity to draw on. And hasn’t the Queen drawn on that in her life.


The Queen’s life of service is an anointed function of her Christian calling. St Paul describes how we all have a variety of callings, and are equipped by the Holy Spirit to carry them out. The Queen, of all people, knows, and has spoken powerfully about the way in which her life is inspired by the life, death and teaching of Jesus Christ; she knows this through the Holy Spirit’s wisdom and insight.


The wonderful thing is that since the Day of Pentecost humanity has lived in a perpetual Jubilee – the time of the Lord’s favour, the time of the Church.


As we rightly give thanks to God for the Queen in her Christian service as Sovereign of this United Kingdom, Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Head of the Commonwealth, with all its nations and languages, may we also reflect on the movement of the Holy Spirit within each one of us to draw us closer to the inner life of God, to renew and refresh our lives and equip.


Come, Holy Spirit, fill the heart of the Queen and all your people, and kindle in us the fire of your love.

[1] “You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the day of atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces.” Leviticus 25.8-13