Archives April 2006

Sermon: Good Friday, 2006

Good Friday

In the name of the +Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Once more, on the only day the church calls good, we gather around the cross, and we hear the story and say the prayers. Once more we face the mystery and the power of sacrifice. We watch an execution, and, in what seems an ironic parody of God’s words at creation, we look at all we have made, and we say that it is good. Good Friday.

Have you noticed that the passion according to St. John is strangely passionless? Compared with Mark’s telling of the story that we heard last Sunday, John’s account seems without much feeling, without much conflict. There is no agony in the garden, no suspense in the trial, no indication of how anyone involved in the drama is moved, or affected by what is happening. Even Peter’s betrayal is reported factually, without reference to emotion or feelings. The entire story, from Jesus’ arrest to his death, moves with a smooth certainty, a controlled, almost casual, flow that leaves no doubt or tension as to the outcome.

One of the things this Gospel is telling us is that, for almost everyone involved, the crucifixion was not a big deal; it was not a particularly important event. There is even an ancient legend saying that Pontius Pilate was asked, late in his life, what he thought about the crucifixion of Jesus—an event by then much discussed. His response was that there had been so many crucifixions, he simply could not remember the specific one that had caused so much notice in later years. (I can maybe believe that.)

At the time, as we just heard, Pilate certainly did not think this crucifixion was important enough to handle differently from any other. He had, at the request of the chief priests, disposed of other troublemakers before; he would doubtless dispose of several more later on. Such accommodations to the religious leaders were simply part of the uneasy truce that existed between the Temple and the Palace. It was business as usual—doubtless regrettable if an innocent man got caught in the middle, but overall the system worked pretty well. It was worth a few mistakes to keep Jerusalem quiet and to avoid a rebellion.

In the same way, the crucifixion was a matter of small interest for the religious leaders.

Caiaphas counseled Jesus’ death because it was expedient. (That’s all). Not because it was right, or because it was necessary; not because it was vital or important or essential to the fate of the nation. Just because it was…. expedient. All in all, Caiaphas no doubt thought it a shame that the situation was such that an occasional execution was necessary. But that’s the way the world was put together. After all, it was necessary for someone in Caiaphas’ position to be realistic, and to do what needed to be done for the larger good.

Indeed, Caiaphas may well have hoped that, one of these days, maybe when the Messiah comes, things would be different, things would be better—and such regrettable incidents will no longer be needed. But for now, it was business as usual.

Notice also that there is no indication of personal malice. Pilate liked Jesus. The other officials did not know him very well. Decisions were made, not because of personalities or theology, but because of fear—fear that, somehow, this Jesus fellow would mess up the way things worked.
Reading John’s account of the crucifixion, I always remember a horrible scene in The Godfather. It happens a couple of times: some “soldiers” or whatever the folks who did the dirty work were called, were going to murder another soldier, an old friend, for some reason or another. They knew their victim well and assured him that his being killed was “nothing personal, only business.” Nothing personal. Even worse, the victim understood. Life is cheap; business is what matters.

Nothing personal, Pilate could say. Nothing personal, Caiaphas could say. We have our way of doing things here; and you endanger that. ||It is only when we pause to consider the meaning of this that the horror becomes clear.

No one decided to kill the Lord of Life out of hatred, malice, pride, greed, rage or envy. There are no powerful emotions, no great, visible evil at work here—no Hitler or Stalin. It just turned out that way.

There was no room in the world for his life; just as their was no room in the inn for his birth. Jesus was not crucified by a world gone rabid with hatred and violence. He was killed by a world gone numb, and indifferent, and slightly bored. It took nothing special to put Jesus on the cross. No extraordinary laws were passed or broken; no unusual actions were taken; and John’s Gospel goes to great lengths to make it clear that not one single exception was made to any religious or legal rule or custom.

Sometimes, truly monstrous evil is too big to see. So we like to trim it down to size and blame somebody—Judas, Pilate, the Jewish leaders, anybody. After all, such blame distances us a bit from what happened and makes it easier to understand.

But this didn’t work that way. The point is simply that the world, going about its business, executed Jesus Christ as a routine and ordinary event. (The evil goes that deep). The point is simply that everyone involved was only doing his job—and the evil goes that deep.

The sin that is shown here is sin buried deep—deep in our lives, deep in our habits, our reflexes, our institutions, and our sensitivities. It is sin rooted so deeply in our world and our lives that most of the time we do not repent of it, or feel ashamed by it. At best, at the very best, we regret it.

John’s Gospel is reminding us that we crucify our Lord in ways we seldom consider. On the one hand, we know that we crucify him anew. We know that we do that when we act like Judas or Peter—when we deny who Jesus is, or try to live as if we do not know him, or put ourselves first. We know about those moments. | They trouble us.

On the other hand, the sin we see on the cross is also found in other ways; in ways more subtle. The sin we see on the cross is found when we look at the tragedy of human pain and suffering and regret that things just seem to work out that way. This sin is found both when we realize that not just the technology, but the actual food necessary to end starvation in the world is available right now—yet people continue to starve; and when we say that it is really a shame that things work out that way. That is another way to crucify him anew.

The sin that put Jesus on the cross is in front of us whenever we watch lives being chewed up in the vicious, unforgiving, competitive structures we build around our schools and our egos, our games and our families, even our jokes, and our wardrobes || and watching that destruction we hear, or we say—that’s the way it is—it’s a tough world.

And Jesus was telling the truth when he said of his executioners, and of us, that they did not know what they were doing. And we can thank God that Jesus prayed for mercy, and not for justice.\\ The sin that we see in the cross is, to a large extent, a silent sin—so built into our lives and our world, so much a part of how things operate, that we hardly notice it.

Today, we see the power of that sin. Today we see what happens when things are simply carried on as usual. Today we realize that the very worst the world can do, it does naturally, and easily, and with some mild regret for a messy necessity.

This is the power that Jesus accepted and refused to resist on its own terms. This is the evil that fell full force on one man on a cross, and was met by love. The crucifixion was inevitable. But it was not inevitable because God wanted Jesus to die; and it was not inevitable because Jesus wanted to suffer. It was inevitable because this is the way the world meets God. This is what happens when God is with us. It is not a big deal to the folks in charge; but this is the world’s automatic last word to God.

We have a day or so to think about that before the first light of Easter flickers in front of us. Of course we know that Good Friday is not finally about sin and evil. It is finally, and fully, and really about the power and depth of God’s redemptive love in the world. For God looked even at this, and even at us and the world we have made—and God said, “let there be light”.

And there was light.


Sermon: Mass of the Lord's Supper, 2006

Mass of the Lord’s Supper

In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

“Do this in remembrance of me”

Today is traditionally known as Maundy Thursday. Maundy comes from the Latin word “Mandatum” – commandment – “A new commandment I will give to you – that you love one another” – John 13:34.

Love is at the heart of this Gospel

It is love which transcends tribe, culture, language, ethnicity, sexuality or location

It is love which unites when the world seeks to pull apart, to dissolve into sectarianism or ethnic conflict

It is love which overcomes the rifts, arguments, fights and conflicts in our families and our marriages.

This love is shown for us on the Cross. The cross which was in the eyes of so many a terrible humiliation, a criminal’s death becomes the victory, the triumph. The Lamb of God slain for our sins, led out to the slaughter – and every time I think of this, I am reminded of those stark images from the Passion of the Christ which make plain the love which gives of itself so completely.

How could we not respond to such love with anything other than our love?

How could we do anything else than recall this saving act with faith.

The Jews made a great thing of recalling the saving acts of God – the book of Deuteronomy is effectively a recapping of the escape from Egypt and a reworking of the law (on the basis that if you teach something twice, it must be really important). To the Middle-eastern mind (and indeed many other non-western cultures), where story telling and recalling are a societal act, stories are not just events of the past, but a living embodiment of the present – we are here because of what we have done in the past.

The Jews sat in the desert and later in the promised land because of Yahweh – we are here because of what we have done in the past.

The Jews fretted in exile in Babylon because of their failure of obey the Torah and recalled – we are here because of what we have done in the past.

We gather together to proclaim the Lord’s death and resurrection in the sacrifice of the mass – we are here because of what has been done in the past.

The word at the heart of this, the institution of the Lord’s Supper in the Upper Room is Anemnesis

I Corinthians 11:24 – “when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’”

and

Luke 22:19 – “Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’”

Remembrance is an inadequate translation for the Greek word – bringing the past into the present – bringing Christ into our midst – the real presence of Christ in body and blood.

Jesus said “THIS IS MY BODY … THIS IS MY BLOOD” and he meant it.

The Passover was a festival which was not a remembrance of the past deeds of Yahweh and the deliverance of the Jews from slavery in Egypt, but a bringing of it into their midst. The Passover happened not 4000 years ago, but now.

Our deliverance, from the slavery of sin and the punishment of death occurs now.

And why should we recall it? Because it brings into our presence that parable in action, which we have just all witnessed – the humility of Christ – the same humility which would be further revealed on the Cross.

When the priest takes off the chasuble and puts on an amice to wash the feet of the people, he brings home the call of Christ, not just to think fondly of the poor, the outcast, the refugee, the tainted, the unsound, the diseased, not to think fondly of them in the past, but to deal with them in the present – to deal with them now. For, as Jesus said, “the poor are always with us”.

The job of washing the feet of guests feel to the lowest slave in the household. People didn’t routinely wear shoes, and the streets were full of the products of an agrarian society – the evidence of donkeys were all around, and so it was not a pleasant task. Jesus took on this role and showed his disciples, showed us, a parable in action – to become one with Christ means casting aside our claims to greatness, claims to honour, claims to prestige and to act like the lowest slave of the household.

Tonight as we gather at this celebration, to bring into our present the whole message of Christ, we see the Mass as the heart of our faith: with its messages of love, of humility, of loving, of thankfulness and of the closeness of God in our midst. The Mass is not an optional extra, but the very centre of our being with God.

We do not presume to understand the mechanisms going on here: anyone who demands to understand the Eucharist taking place here is merely showing how far they are from understanding that the ways of Yahweh are simply beyond understanding, that although God is close, he is unknowable, mysterious, other.

God cannot simply be measured out, or weighed, or deduced. God is.  God simply is.

But through the grace of holy orders, the calling down of the Holy Spirit, something special happens: the ordinary – ordinary bread and ordinary wine are made extraordinary. Ordinary people like you and I are transformed into the extraordinary people of God, and the Christ who said “I will be with you always” stands here in our midst and shares again, and again and again his simple meal of bread and wine, and love and humility.

At the end of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the Church is stripped, the sacrament is removed to the altar of repose and we are left in the desolate silence, reminded of the arid loss of the disciples as their Lord was arrested and taken from them.

But we recognise that what took place in that Upper Room fed not only those disciples gathered for a Passover meal, but fed an entire Church. It is a miracle which makes the feeding of the five thousand look trivial, and yet here amid bread and wine and worship and prayers are hidden the gateway to salvation. This is more than a simple memorial meal, or a farewell toast – it is that night brought into Elson and shared with you, his disciples.

During Lent we have used the memorial acclamation which cannot be any more apt, so let us say together:

“Every time we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus, until you come in glory”

We are here because God is.

Amen.


Sermon: Easter 4, Year B

Sermon: Easter 4, Year B
Text: John 10:1-10

In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Two sheep were standing in a field.

“Baaaa” said one.

“Bother” said the other one, “I was going to say that!”

The real challenge of Good Shepherd Sunday is to make it real for an urban and sophisticated congregation like yourselves. I suspect that the flow of this sermon would be made so much better if we were surrounded by sheep and rolling hills, rather than concrete, pavements and the interminable roadworks on the A32.

Sheep simply do not enter into our mindset, and so to fully understand the significance of our Gospel this morning, we need to understand some country ways.

We often think of Shepherds as people who drive sheep, from the rear with their snarling but canny sheepdogs, pushing the flock of sheep to where the Shepherd wishes them to go: to safety, or to the market or even the abattoir. I recall watching on holiday once a demonstration of shepherding. One man and his dog, a whistle and a large field, it was amazing to see man and dog working together as one to guide and drive these sheep. If only my own dog, Ruby, were so obedient!

However, it would be quite incorrect for us to assume that when Christ spoke of being a shepherd, and we in the language of Psalm 100 as the sheep of his pasture, he was thinking of driving us poor creatures to where we didn’t want to go. That is a metaphor for the west, and the modern age, not the Middle East at the time of Our Lord.

Out there, a shepherd does not have the advantage of a sheepdog, and so rather than driving his sheep forward, from the rear, a shepherd leads his flock, leads from the front. Indeed, the text of the Gospel makes explicit reference to this:

“The sheep hear his voice, one by one he calls his own sheep and leads them out. He goes ahead of them and the sheep follow because they know his voice”

With this metaphor in mind, we can see the role of Christ much more clearly: to lead us towards God, not to drive us; to guide and inspire, protect and save rather than to coerce, bully or harass.

The Good Shepherd is a challenging illusion. We tend to think of Shepherds as being part of the biblical scene, as they are referred to frequently by Christ; they were witnesses of his birth, we recall. We grace them perhaps with the dignity of the working man, and see them as perhaps a representative of us, the common people.

That is, however, not how the original hearers of Christ’s words would have interpreted them. Shepherds were required to spend long periods of time away from their homes. They lived uncomfortable lives in the semi-wilderness confronted by the dangers of wolves and thieves. They did not have the luxury of a day off, and so Shepherds were seen as disreputable and scandalous because they had to break the Sabbath Law. We have lost our awareness of how scandalous it would be for Christ to liken himself to one who broke the Sabbath – would Christ today say “I am the Good Prostitute?” – would we be equally scandalised by such a suggestion? That sounds outrageous doesn’t it? It would have had the same impact in the first century.

And yet, time and time again God proves to us that his ways are not our ways, and many of our concepts of scandal are misplaced. King David was a shepherd: a loyal, good and effective shepherd as well if his prowess with the slingshot was anything to go by. His descendant, Our Lord identifies himself with the scandalised, he was revealed to these poor-quality Jews at his birth, and uses them to teach us something very significant about his mission.

Christ, of course, was frequently the subject of scandal: he ate with sinners as well as likening himself to them, and he died a criminal’s death. The lamb of God is not an image of a pastoral ideal, but the image of a sacrificial victim – the lambs sacrificed for the Passover on the night we call Maundy Thursday.

For Christ be the Good Shepherd to us, we need to accept being his sheep. Today is also Vocation Sunday; a day when we pray not only for vocations to the sacred priesthood or the religious life, although that is both necessary and welcome. We pray for the discernment of a vocation for all of us, to respond to God’s call to be whatever he leads us to. The Good Shepherd has a vocation in mind for all of us, a ministry for us all to perform, a response to Him as one of his flock.

When we think of vocation, we usually focus on priesthood, on the religious life. But what about the other vocations that being a Christian is all about. What about visiting that otherwise lonely elderly person. What about enabling a harassed single mum have an afternoon to herself. What about the friendly smile to the disaffected youth on the street corner? These are all part of our vocation as Christians and vocations that we can all aspire to.

In participating in God’s holy sacraments at this altar, and doing God’s work here on earth, building the kingdom of God, we are responding to his call, the lead of the Good Shepherd: our vocation as Christians is to be the Sheep of God’s pasture – to follow where he leads us, to be protected from harm by him, to be nourished through him, to join with him as one body.

There can be no greater vocation: the vocation to be a Christian, to be a sheep for the lamb of God. Amen.