Sermon: Patronal Festival, 2005

Sermon: Patronal Festival, St Thomas the Apostle
Text: John 20:24-29

“My Lord and My God”

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

Thomas must have felt that he had a bit of a raw deal. For he really missed out on that first Easter Sunday. Thomas must be the definitive everyman, for there is a little bit of him in each of us, and what he missed has much to teach us.

Firstly, Peace.

“Peace” Jesus said to the disciples in the locked room. What a relief for them, a frightened, persecuted, and bewildered group, hidden away in a locked room “for fear of the Jews”. It could conceivably have been the same upper room that was the site of Christ’s final, most significant teaching: triumph become disaster within only a few days. His first words were “Shalom” – “Peace”. He could have spoken first of his disappointment, of his anger at them for their denial, abandonment, misunderstanding and betrayal. However, Peace is what he bestows on his disciples, and in saying this he echoes what he had said in that same room on the last night he had been with them: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid”

And Thomas missed the peace.

Next, Pardon. Our Lord had already forgiven or pardoned the disciples when he bestowed peace upon them; but he spoke explicitly of pardon when he spoke of forgiving and retaining sins. What Christ empowered the apostles to do, his Church continues…

The pardon of our Saviour can be available to us, only if we make some concessions: God cannot fill our cup with forgiveness if it is already filled to the brim with bitterness.

God cannot embrace us with forgiveness if our arms are carrying the heavy burden of resentment.

God cannot take our hand in forgiveness, if our fists are clenched in anger.

God cannot forgive the malevolent, shadowy side of our spirits if our minds are darkened by revenge and hate.

In his cry of doubt, Thomas shows his own unwillingness to make concessions to Our Lord, expecting Christ to come to him and show even his most intimate wounds, associated with the world’s greatest humiliation, with nothing given in return.

So Thomas missed out on the pardon of Christ.

Finally, Presence. The real, concrete, Glorious Presence of God came to those disciples. Woody Allen said that “95% of life is just ‘showing up’” Thomas had simply failed to ‘show up’.

And so Thomas missed the presence.

He missed out, and that must have hurt; especially for one so previously intimate with our Lord. Peace, Pardon and Presence, Thomas missed them all. In their place he demanded a substitute for them, something which our cynical society constantly craves, and which we, in our inmost, darkest times before the dawn hanker after, another “P” – “Proof”

And this is why I must conclude that Thomas must be the definitive everyman, because although graced with apostolic sainthood, he is shown to be above all like us. In our struggle to maintain the Christian life, we too miss out on Peace, Pardon and the Presence of Christ, and in return we torture ourselves over Proof.

Despite being promised how blessed we would be if we believe without physical proof, the burden of rationality rests upon our faith like a cumbersome weight – `Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe’.

Thomas craves certainty, clarity, proof: an empty tomb and the reports of his colleagues are simply not enough. And these things have not changed: the quest for proof to bridge the gap between us and the living Godhead remains constant through the ages: from the Upper Room, past the Enlightenment and into our present age.

Thomas. How like the rest of us, Thomas manages to be; unwilling to commit to faith, I imagine him being borne by the tide of apostleship: to join the band, caught up but not caught in.

How often we treat our membership of the Church like this: caught up, but not caught in. A central part, a leader of worship and a focus of ministry even, but without having that final act of faith.

So, was Thomas just going through the motions of discipleship? Was he incapable of commitment to faith beyond proof? I think not, for he learns in his shame that his Lord was indeed his God: a shame almost comparable to the remorse felt by Peter when he had denied Christ. Both are forgiven, both are justified by the risen Christ, and they are used as examples to us, we the less immediate disciples: learn from Thomas and believe without having to put your hand into his side.

Recall in your mind that great painting by Carravaggio, where Jesus lets Thomas get right up close to see his wounds. Thomas is bent over – at eye-level with his pierced side, and Jesus is guiding his hand so that he might feel the wound for himself. Most graphically, Thomas’ finger is buried in the gaping hole in Our Lord’s side, all the way up to the knuckle.

We do not have that privilege; but how much we would all like to swap places with Thomas, and to be able to quench those nagging doubts once and for all with a little physicality.

When Thomas was given the opportunity to experience the risen Christ, the Presence of Christ in his life, he was also able to experience the Pardon, a blessing even, and through that he is able to experience the Peace; a true peace which can only come from an intimate, life-changing encounter with the risen Lord. Thomas therefore was ultimately able to catch up with those special events, and through this, to be able to conclude that he was faced by “My Lord and My God”. He did not miss out.

‘Blessed are those who believe when they have not seen’. St John the Evangelist speaks directly to us at the end of this Gospel passage, a ‘direct-to-camera’ piece which reminds us of the purpose of his gospel, the purpose of all the gospels, which is to enable us, nearly 2000 years after these marvelous events, to be able to believe. He says to us that “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book”, events which may have been trivial: encounters, comforts, healings even, which the risen Christ took part in during those heady days between Easter and the Glorious Ascension, proof which existed, but which we do not need.

The other passages we have learnt from this morning speak of another “P” – Permanence. Through the resurrection of Our Lord, Jesus Christ he has demonstrated the undisputable permanence of God: more than simply a prophet, more than simply a teacher, more than even a King of Israel like David, who was as corruptible in the body if not the soul as the rest of us. Not merely content with being seen on earth, the incarnation of Christ, and the resurrected Lord offers us an incorruptible place, the route to which can only be found by faith. This was the faith that Thomas was able, at last, to capture. Peter also speaks of permanence, an enduring faith which becomes so real to those experiencing it that it becomes the purest they can imagine: a faith as precious as highly refined gold.

As Thomas discovered, faith is therefore not something which can be scientifically rationalized, and all such rationalizations have been ultimately disappointing in their conclusions. Thomas thought to begin with that he needed a concrete solution, and failed to realize that he ignored the qualitative, the abstract, the core that makes up Faith; for this he nearly missed out, and the danger is that we too may miss out.

Look beyond the Proof – and there is proof out there, if you really want to fruitlessly search hard enough for it – and seek the faith that is found behind this account; a faith that is as pure as gold that has been tested by fire.

We will always remember Thomas as the one who dared to question the reports of his fellow apostles – “doubting Thomas”. However, his one definitive statement is the finest example of New Testament Christology – “My Lord and My God”. How dare we call him doubting Thomas after that: “professing Thomas”, perhaps, “confessing Thomas”, and now, most undoubtedly, “believing Thomas”

“My Lord and My God”. We declare. We bear witness. We believe.

Amen.


Come Rain, Wind or Snow…

The Chichester Diocese May Festival was great fun at Plumpton Racecourse, but the weather was so changable, we didn’t know what was happening from one minute to the next: hot sunshine, pouring rain, enough wind to lift huge party tents and carry them across half the county.

The worship was okay, the Blessed multimedia mass went with few hitches (a radical one which involved the silent acting out of the institution narrative and the consecration of a whole bottle of wine in the bottle and a large loaf of bread) and some of the other worship hit the spot occasionally.

This is a short extract of a couple of the songs to give you an impression.

The video is now captured before we send it to the PC for overlaying with text. This means that what we capture is the event rather than the screens. Videos are shown from the PC so they will have to be post-edited in. Ed and I tended to use animated backdrops for most of the worship which kept the focus on the liturgical action rather than the ‘pop-star’ performance and I think this was better for this reason.

The speaker this weekend was one of those earnest evangelicals and annoyed me immensely as he was preoccupied with a) the incontrovertable facts that can only be found in the bible b) that you are all going to hell.

There was nothing about grace or redemption, nothing about love or forgiveness, nothing in fact about the Gospel which I preach. How can we come alongside young people and walk them in faith if we try to scare them into it – how medieval is that? The bible is a tool of revelation, not the be all and end all. God did not stop revealing himself in AD120 after the Revelation to St Johnb the Divine was completed, and he continues to work with us and through us through the Saints, the sacraments and through normal people like you and I.

Did a seminar on multisensory worship where I again promulgated my idea that a response to God is first and foremost an emotive response, and intellectualisation comes only later: the opposite idea to the Alpha course lectures written by posh barristers (…therefore, ladies and gentlemen of the Jury, I can prove that God exists…). We reach out to God first with our souls and our minds follow afterwards. Ran out of time on this, but overall didn’t think it was too bad. Perhaps I spent too much time on the Postmodern theory, but we don’t usually give it any consideration, so this was, I felt, necessary.

Key privileges was helping a wonderful young woman with her AS Theology revision (doing stuff half-forgotten from my theology degree) and talking about her vocation. God is moving within her, and she needs to be nurtured… must pray…

Low point was the first night when I wasn’t up to speed with the Easyworship, and felt paniced, then I lost it when Shortfall gave me names of songs which were different to the ones on easyworship. They never checked they were the right ones and I felt really really stupid. I had to talk a walk for a few moments and then come back and apologise to Ed. Not professional, but human.

Our young people really enjoyed the weekend: fun and fellowship first; a bit of religion thrown in on top. This is the way souls are won for Christ and it has precious little to do with hell and damnation…


Sermon: Easter 5, Year A

Sermon: Easter 5, Year A
Text: John 14:1-12
In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled”

I have preached on this text quite a number of times recently. I would like to think that it has honed my thinking on it, but there is a distinct chance that many of you will have already heard some of my reflections on it recently; for it is one of the principle texts read at the Funeral Office. Perhaps there may be an opportunity for some of you to join me in the familiar chorus at some stage…

However, I think that many of the things I have repeated at some of the many funerals we have celebrated in Church since Easter, bear repeating again; for there are some familiar stories which need to be repeated over and over again for their significance to be truly revealed.

This passage of Scripture speaks to all of us about that which we have no control. Death will come to all of us, and yet we so seldom speak of it. I heard it said that a hundred years ago, the Victorians were obsessed with death: long periods in mourning, complicated family rituals and a gothic sense of the spiritual – obsessed with death and afraid to talk of sex. Where as today… society is obsessed with sex and afraid to talk of death. Even when Christ spoke of his impending arrest and passion, the disciples could not comprehend it. But speak of death we must, because it is not unspeakable, but an integrated part of life. We begin our lives with God, we travel through this earthly life (which may be only a small part of it) and at this point we return back to God, and that is the promise – the promise made by Christ himself – that we must hold onto whenever this sadness and loss confronts us.

Funerals are sad occasions, and the loss of someone loved is never easy. Bereavement is one of the most unpleasant emotions, but is a necessary one: for bereavement is one of the emotions that make us truly human: to sense the loss of someone in our lives and to seek to be healed emotionally. Christ himself wept at the tomb of Lazarus. However, as Scripture tells us so very clearly, this sadness should be contrasted with the hope that Jesus Christ promises to us in these times of sadness and loss. It is a powerful hope for all of us, whether we actively proclaim our Christian faith, or whether faith is, a private matter, kept to oneself.

The Gospel gives us the consoling words of Christ addressed to his own disciples: “Let not your hearts be troubled”. Christ has gone before us and through his experience of death, through his overcoming of death in the triumph of the resurrection, he has opened up the way to eternal life for each and everyone of us.

For death, although a physical loss to those of us here, is very much a part of life: death is not an end, but merely a change in relationship, and a change in perspective which we on this earth find difficult to perceive, but Oh yes, the departed are still very much with us, in our memories, in our love and in our prayers.

I have, throughout my priestly ministry conducted many funerals: of those of great age, dignity and social standing, with a packed church and a wailing, tearful congregation; of those isolated and alone – indeed where myself and a next-door neighbour were the only ones there at the graveside; of adults cut short in the prime of their life; and of children, died before they had to opportunity to reach their prime. For all of these, Christ says “Come. I shall return to take you with me. Follow”. The dignity of the Christian Funeral is there for all, from the mightiest to the least, the youngest to the eldest. God’s welcome is for all of them, and so are our prayers. This is why I always include the prayers for the faithful departed and those whose anniversaries of death (known as ‘Year’s mind’) occur. Remember the words: “Rest Eternal Grant unto them, O Lord / And let light perpetual shine upon them / May they Rest in Peace / And rise in Glory” is a powerful prayer. Prayer for the departed is of benefit for them, and of great benefit to us, for it provides us with solace and links us with them, whether we knew them or not, God knows them, and they ALL deserve our unselfish prayers for their immortal souls.

Christ himself declared that he was “the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by him” and it is with this sure promise that we meet at a funeral to assist the faithful departed on the next part of life’s journey.

It is with this promise that we gather to re-enact that one full perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction in the mysteries of the sacraments and as we do this, as Jesus Christ assured us, “Let not your hearts be troubled”

Amen.


Sermon: Easter 4, Year A

Sermon: Easter 4, Year A
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.

I spoke last week of those preparing for Confirmation, and I repeat my call for you to hold them in your prayers. 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.


Sermon: Easter 3, Year A

Sermon: 3rd Sunday of Easter, Year A
Text: Luke 24:13-35

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

I have not had the opportunity, quite regrettably really, to travel the world extensively, to visit exotic places and encounter strange cultures. In a strange reversal of how things really ought to be, rather than it being me who took off to foreign parts, it has been my Mother who has been to the Caribbean, to the Far East and to India – blowing what remains of my inheritance no doubt.

And yet, whether we have a passport filled to the brim with customs stamps or whether we have remained in Elson all our lives, we are still engaged on a journey – a journey travelling in hope and prayer to a destination beyond compare.

This morning’s Gospel is the metaphorical journey of life expressed in the post-resurrection narrative. It has much to teach us about our own spiritual journeys and the ways in which the risen Christ is revealed to us.

St. Luke places his narratives within the realm of the known: we are told of the exact journey: Jerusalem to Emmaus which would be as recognisable to early hearers as a journey from Fareham to Gosport. We are told the name of one of the travellers: Cleopas; not an apostle, but perhaps one the 72, one of the many who stood on the periphery of the early Christian Church. One of us, perhaps?

They fail to recognise the risen Christ. Was it because it was just so unexpected? Were they so wrapped up in their grief? But Christ is always alongside us would we but know it? How often do we think we are travelling a lonely road, abandoned by all; and yet Christ has been there all along, beside us, guiding us, comforting us and leading us to green pastures.
When Cleopas and friend are asked to explain the top news story of the last few days, they show their appreciation of Christ, but not his true nature: they describe him as “a great prophet”, but fail to spot his Divinity. By ourselves, through our own intellect, our own philosophy, our own science, we cannot truly grasp Jesus Christ: God is beyond us. We need him to reveal himself to us: just as Jesus explains the Scriptures to his comrades.

Which texts does Jesus explain for his companions? We are not told, but Luke suggests that it does not matter.

Later, Jesus Christ reveals himself as he breaks the bread with his friends: a mirror of the last supper and a reminder of the Mass. Which text does he use? What Eucharistic Prayer does he employ, and does he use inclusive language? It does not matter. These are trivial, human-scale issues compared to the glorious self-revelation completed in the inn at Emmaus.

Jesus Christ is revealed to us this morning in two complimentary ways: in the exploration of Scripture and in the breaking of the bread: without these two there can be no Mass this morning – Common Worship comprises of the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Sacrament, each balanced and linked by the sharing of the peace.

The story of the Road to Emmaus is therefore one of the models for our thanksgiving this morning. As Jesus Christ reveals himself in the Holy Scriptures, he reveals himself in the Holy Sacrament. As he walks and explains the foretelling of Christ’s passion in the scriptures and then reveals the glory of the resurrection in broken bread and wine outpoured.

The Eucharistic feast is therefore central to our lives as Christians, and we all come to this place to witness the living Christ made known on this altar in, to paraphrase St Francis of Assisi, the hands of a priest, hiding under and ordinary piece of bread.
The crucial importance of the mass in our Christian journey (further than Jerusalem to Emmaus) leads me to think of those who are preparing to enter into this mystical relationship through the sacrament of Confirmation.

As you are probably aware, the Parish Mass on Whit Sunday – Pentecost – will be celebrated by Bishop Kenneth, which is a great honour for us. The Bishop is our focus of unity, and so the 10am Mass will be the only mass of the day, and one that I hope will be fully supported by all the congregations here at St Thomas’: standing room only is what we want to see – a visible statement of our faith and dedication, to God, to this church and to this parish. There will be room, I assure you, and I call on all of you to make that effort to show the Bishop our allegiance to him, and our visible declaration of Jesus as Lord.

At this special mass he will also confirm those who have been prepared for it, from across the deanery and especially from this parish.

Confirmation is a true sacrament: the laying on of hands by the Bishop is an outward visible sign of the inward spiritual grace which is manifested by the Holy Spirit, and which was revealed on the road to Emmaus.

Confirmation is an important step to make, it has required commitment and a willingness to become open to God, as well as come round the vicarage and drink my coffee!

As you can see, Confirmation is not something just for the children of the church – it is an essential sacrament for all in this Church so if you come to this altar rail with any frequency, and receive a blessing, then come and talk to myself and we can speak of confirmation; we can speak of a full and complete welcome into the body of Christ which is the Church. It isn’t hard, there isn’t an exam, nothing to write up, and as I hope both the adult group and young person’s group will agree, it can be a few weeks of fun as well! Do not simply sit there and not participate in one of the most important sacraments of our salvation: get confirmed, receive the Holy Spirit, receive the Bread of Life. Some journeys in life may appear a little daunting: Oh it’s such a long way down the road to Emmaus, I’m a little too tired or otherwise busy, I’ve left it too late to set off now, or I’m a little self-conscious about what others might think of me when they see me on the road. Some journeys in life may have been halted or diverted at some point, or things in your life may have happened which make you think you’ll never get to the Emmaus Arms. The journey down the Emmaus Road is the journey to the sacramental encounter with Christ. It is a journey we all continue to travel down, and Christ walks alongside us, every step, revealing the scriptures to us, making our hearts burn within us, giving us a glimpse of resurrection joy.

So, in our run up to Pentecost, I ask you to hold in your prayers the Christian journey of all to be confirmed: <names>, and possibly also from other churches in the deanery, and pray also for yourselves. For their Confirmation takes each and every one of us back to our own Confirmation – our own personal declaration of faith, and entry into this sacramental union with Christ.

We all travel down the highway of life, passing through points which are unfamiliar, sometimes even a little threatening, we often take detours which are can be difficult or arduous; but with Christ walking alongside us, walking as he walked alongside Cleopas and his companion, our ultimate destination, at least, is known; and we will know him, at our journeys end, in the breaking of the bread.

Amen.


Sermon: Holy Week, 2005

Philippians 2:5-11

”He emptied himself” (v7)

These six verses known as the Kenotic Hymn contain some of the most profound theology ever written, alongside the prologue of the Gospel of John.

Both are philosophical examinations of the nature of Christ, both speak of the pre-existence of Christ and the wonder of his incarnation.

Kenosis (ekenosen) is the Greek word which means he “emptied himself” and is the centrepiece of this passage. It is described as a hymn, and is thought by many not to be originally by Paul. It is certainly more poetic than much of his writing, and in context appears to be a quotation – in the form of a common reference, so Paul cites something in common knowledge amongst the Christian communities, communities which at that time did not have the benefit of Scripture.

At the beginning of the passage is the recognition of Christ’s position within the Godhead, and his willing abrogation of that position for the lowliness of humanity. The Orthodox Church with which I have much affinity places much emphasis on the incarnation, the awe-inspiring thought that Almighty God should choose to come alongside us, and be treated not only like us, but be treated worse than most of us and be put to the death of a criminal.

In the Garden of Gethsememe, Christ said that if he wanted, angels could have come and defended him, but he chose not to let that happen, he chose to allow human events to carry him to the place of the skull. The true showing of power is in not exercising it.

Kenosis, or pouring out, is a self-initiated activity; although Christ’s Passion was inflicted upon him, his kenosis can only come from himself. Nothing could force it out of him, only by his choice. The hymn says that he became “obedient to death, even death on a cross”, as an act of choice, not of compulsion.

The Passion that we have just heard is not therefore a tale of injustice, of a helpless victim or a scapegoat, but is the prelude to a far greater story: the victory over sin and death whose denoument is the resurrection itself. What Christ endured would have been intolerable for us as mere humans to bear, the Mel Gibson film, the Passion of the Christ is a testament to that; but was willingly undertaken for our sins. At the climax of the Gospel of John, Christ declares “It is Accomplished” – his heavy task is complete, and it is a task that only one who is in the form of God could accomplish for our sins.

Amen.


Sermon: Lent 4, Year A

Sermon: Lent 4, Year A
Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

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

You can see the change already in Church. The fifth Sunday marks the beginning of Passiontide: the ikons and crosses are shrouded, the banners put away. There is a greater sense of stillness, and a portent of dangerous things to come, a portent of something important.

Ezekiel shows one of these portents: the dry bones that rise from the desolate valley are symbolic primarily of the nation of Israel, exiled in 597 BC to Babylonia: crushed, defeated and dismembered. The Exile was the devastation of the nation: Jerusalem sacked, the holy of holies desecrated and the people scattered.

Ezekiel is ordered to prophesy and through the power of God they are resurrected. The people of Israel cannot come together again by their own power, but only through prophecy and the will of God.

In a similar vein, Lazarus is raised by prophecy – for Jesus says to Martha “Your brother will rise again” and by the will of God the Son, who calls to him. Flesh once again comes together and Lazarus comes out of the tomb.

The passion of Christ is also the subject of many, many prophecies, and it is by the will of the Father that the Son is raised.

Michael Schmaus, an American theologian, raises an interesting theological question: one of whether Christ was raised from the dead (the testimony of Matthew 28:6, Acts 2:32 and 1 Corinthians 15:13-15) or whether he has risen (Mark 16:6-9, Luke 24:34,46, another part of Acts 26:23 and the letter to the Romans 1:4 & 6:5); whether Our Lord was an active or passive participant in his resurrection: did the Father raise the dead body, or did the power of Christ who raised others, raise himself?

We need to ask ‘What does this say about our understanding of Christ, of his Father and their relationship as parts of the Trinity?’

Schmaus suggests this paradox can be reconciled by saying that Christ was raised by the Father insofar as he was a man, and that he has risen by his own power insofar as he is God. For it is only God who has such power, and he is manifest in both the Father, the Son and the Spirit.

The raising of Lazarus is a prophecy in itself, for it speaks of not only the resurrection of Christ himself, but of our resurrection, our new life in Christ, our deliverance from sin. However, Lazarus’ resurrection was a temporary one – he was raised to die once more as an old man. Our resurrection however, like that of Christ’s is an everlasting one, of flesh so real that our own patron Saint, Saint Thomas could put his hand inside the wound in his side, but so not of this usual world that the risen Lord could enter locked rooms.

Last week I went on a course for vicars like myself who are in their first parish. It was quite hard work but hugely informative and rewarding. One of the many things we encountered was some study on the cycle of the day: that of course the Jewish day runs from dusk on one day to dusk on the next: ‘it was evening and morning: the first day’.

Every day is an experience of darkness into light. This is why the Easter vigil can legitimately be held as we are holding it this year on the Saturday evening, for Saturday evening is easter day! So many times in both the Old and the New Testaments, God works on people through their dreams (think of Joseph, Moses, Samuel or Daniel), preparing their work in the night to be ready for the action of the day.

Lazarus, similarly had to go through darkness: the darkness of the tomb, the darkness of death, the darkness of loss and mourning for Mary and Martha, before Christ brought him back into the light. His preparation was in the dark, his action was his physical witness to the power of God.

There are times when we are required to go through that darkness: a serious illness, the loss of a loved one, dramatic change in our working or praying lives. It is often at that time when it may feel that God is so far from us, and we are sealed inside a tomb of our own despair. We may have been as faithful and devoted as Lazarus, or as sinful and unworthy as the next person. It is then that Christ calls out to us. It is then that God pulls us from the death of sin and into his marvellous light.

We should therefore be comforted when we enter into those dark times that there is a resurrection promise on the other side, a promise that makes dry bones dance, the dead rise and the sunset into a new dawn.

Amen.


Sermon: Ordinary 2, Year A

Sermon: 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Text: John 1:29-34

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

“This is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”

John the Baptist uses the metaphor of the Lamb of God. It is an odd metaphor when one considers the traditional view of the Messiah of God as a powerful military leader who would free Israel from oppression.

The Lamb of God is the sacrificial lamb, the willing victim, the man of sorrows. John the Evangelist makes this connection clear by telling us that Christ is arrested and is given up late on Maundy Thursday – at the same time as the Passover Lambs were being slaughtered in preparation for the Passover. In the Gospel of John, the Last Supper is not the Passover meal, but the one that precedes it – look closely at the text and you will see this.

When I raise the consecrated elements at the end of the Lord’s Prayer, I always echo these words of John the Baptist directly: “This is the Lamb of God”, not “This is something that reminds me of the Lamb of God…” but “This is…”

As you can tell from my girth: in the past I have been very fond of wine. As the Scriptures say, it “gladdens our hearts” and has been a wonderful source of joy in my life.

The process of making wine is ancient: when Noah found dry land again, he planted a vineyard and got drunk (it’s in Genesis 9:20-21). However, one does not simply plant grapes and get wine, something has to happen to it to make it into that wonderful substance.

The action of fermentation, the work of yeast, to convert sugar into alcohol happens almost invisibly. It happens as it must in the dark, in the warm, and out of sight, and for most of us, how it does it is a mystery.

We start with grape juice and we end with champagne. A transformation in substance.

In the same way, the words and the actions of the priest and the responses of the congregation works on ordinary things: simple bread and wine, and there is another transformation in substance.

In a way that is also mysterious, that cannot be satisfactorily explained, nor indeed should be explained, there is a change in the ordinary and it becomes extraordinary, as God enters into these elements and simple bread and wine become the blessed sacrament and precious blood.

“This is the Lamb of God…” is literally true, it is not a metaphor or an illustration, but a statement of fact. In these changed elements we find God. We find the real presence of Him “hiding” as St Francis of Assisi wonderfully said “under an ordinary piece of bread”. When Jesus took the bread and wine of a meal, he said “This is my body”, “This is my blood”. It was not a metaphor, not an illustration, but the institution of a sacrament. We believe Christ when he admits that he is the Son of God, so I fail to understand why some would wish to deny the reality of Christ in these most sacred mysteries.

We start with bread and wine and we end with the body and blood of Christ. We need not look for God in the molecules of the wine, or the atoms of the bread, look not for the change to the elements (which is why it matters not whether the wine is red or white – in fact it maybe even better for us if the wine does not look like blood, for that would be far to obvious for the mysterious workings of God), look not for the change to the elements but look for the change in the people of receive it – the comfort derived from the sacrament. Look not for the wind, but for the action the wind has on the trees.

God takes the ordinary: people like you and like me, and he transforms us into something extraordinary – into the saved. God does this is subtle ways, hidden, in the dark. How he does this is a mystery. We are transformed by the power of God, transformed by Christ’s body and blood.

This is why I have the highest possible regard for the sacraments. This is why the Mass is the cornerstone of our worship and why it is at the heart of our missionary activity in this place. This is why we come together not just on a Sunday but at other times during the week to worship God, and why you should come also. This is why we keep the blessed sacrament safely in that Aumbrey behind the altar and we revere it with a bow or a genuflection, for God is really present here in these blessed sacraments and his holy presence is signified by the candle that always burns above the Aumbrey.

That is why we have the opportunity to pray before the blessed sacrament when it is exposed. This is why is taken to those too unwell to come to Church to receive the sacrament of salvation.

That is why you should all come to this holy altar to partake in these blessed sacraments; for he was prepared to make himself available to all of us.

“This is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”. Not the sins of a few, or the sins of those who are already good, but the sins of the whole world, the sins of you, the sins of me, the sins of all of us, past, present and future.

We behold Christ on the altar, making the holy sacrifice, we witness the transformation, we ourselves are transformed.

…and it is something far finer than the finest champagne, for this is the taste of salvation.

Amen.


Sermon: Ordinary 2, Year A

Sermon: 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Text: John 1:29-34

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

“This is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”

John the Baptist uses the metaphor of the Lamb of God. It is an odd metaphor when one considers the traditional view of the Messiah of God as a powerful military leader who would free Israel from oppression.

The Lamb of God is the sacrificial lamb, the willing victim, the man of sorrows. John the Evangelist makes this connection clear by telling us that Christ is arrested and is given up late on Maundy Thursday – at the same time as the Passover Lambs were being slaughtered in preparation for the Passover. In the Gospel of John, the Last Supper is not the Passover meal, but the one that precedes it – look closely at the text and you will see this.

When I raise the consecrated elements at the end of the Lord’s Prayer, I always echo these words of John the Baptist directly: “This is the Lamb of God”, not “This is something that reminds me of the Lamb of God…” but “This is…”

As you can tell from my girth: in the past I have been very fond of wine. As the Scriptures say, it “gladdens our hearts” and has been a wonderful source of joy in my life.

The process of making wine is ancient: when Noah found dry land again, he planted a vineyard and got drunk (it’s in Genesis 9:20-21). However, one does not simply plant grapes and get wine, something has to happen to it to make it into that wonderful substance.

The action of fermentation, the work of yeast, to convert sugar into alcohol happens almost invisibly. It happens as it must in the dark, in the warm, and out of sight, and for most of us, how it does it is a mystery.

We start with grape juice and we end with champagne. A transformation in substance.

In the same way, the words and the actions of the priest and the responses of the congregation works on ordinary things: simple bread and wine, and there is another transformation in substance.

In a way that is also mysterious, that cannot be satisfactorily explained, nor indeed should be explained, there is a change in the ordinary and it becomes extraordinary, as God enters into these elements and simple bread and wine become the blessed sacrament and precious blood.

“This is the Lamb of God…” is literally true, it is not a metaphor or an illustration, but a statement of fact. In these changed elements we find God. We find the real presence of Him “hiding” as St Francis of Assisi wonderfully said “under an ordinary piece of bread”. When Jesus took the bread and wine of a meal, he said “This is my body”, “This is my blood”. It was not a metaphor, not an illustration, but the institution of a sacrament. We believe Christ when he admits that he is the Son of God, so I fail to understand why some would wish to deny the reality of Christ in these most sacred mysteries.

We start with bread and wine and we end with the body and blood of Christ. We need not look for God in the molecules of the wine, or the atoms of the bread, look not for the change to the elements (which is why it matters not whether the wine is red or white – in fact it maybe even better for us if the wine does not look like blood, for that would be far to obvious for the mysterious workings of God), look not for the change to the elements but look for the change in the people of receive it – the comfort derived from the sacrament. Look not for the wind, but for the action the wind has on the trees.

God takes the ordinary: people like you and like me, and he transforms us into something extraordinary – into the saved. God does this is subtle ways, hidden, in the dark. How he does this is a mystery. We are transformed by the power of God, transformed by Christ’s body and blood.

This is why I have the highest possible regard for the sacraments. This is why the Mass is the cornerstone of our worship and why it is at the heart of our missionary activity in this place. This is why we come together not just on a Sunday but at other times during the week to worship God, and why you should come also. This is why we keep the blessed sacrament safely in that Aumbrey behind the altar and we revere it with a bow or a genuflection, for God is really present here in these blessed sacraments and his holy presence is signified by the candle that always burns above the Aumbrey.

That is why we have the opportunity to pray before the blessed sacrament when it is exposed. This is why is taken to those too unwell to come to Church to receive the sacrament of salvation.

That is why you should all come to this holy altar to partake in these blessed sacraments; for he was prepared to make himself available to all of us.

“This is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”. Not the sins of a few, or the sins of those who are already good, but the sins of the whole world, the sins of you, the sins of me, the sins of all of us, past, present and future.

We behold Christ on the altar, making the holy sacrifice, we witness the transformation, we ourselves are transformed.

…and it is something far finer than the finest champagne, for this is the taste of salvation.

Amen.


Sermon: Christmas Day, Year A

Sermon: Christmas Day, Year A
Text: John 1:1

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

So, we have had all chaos of the Crib and Christingle Service, the beauty and splendour of a full midnight mass, with the bambino placed reverently into the Crib scene and the nativity scene is now complete.

Or is it?

In Catalan homes and Churches there is another figure which I have not spotted amongst our ancient and by-now-quite-fragile crib: I speak of “El Caganer” – who can be loosely translated as “the one who is doing his business”.

The business in hand must be taken quite euphemistically, when I tell you that El Caganer takes his place in the Christmas Crib, besides the Wise Men, wearing a peasant beret and squatting, with his trousers around his ankles.

In the midst of all this solemnity, there is injected a little earthly humour, a little humanity in the midst of all this Godliness.

And I say, that this is a good thing, a very good thing indeed: a little grounding in reality just as we let our pietism loose on flights of extreme fantasy.

The Christmas Crib, like what we have below the altar was first created by Saint Francis of Assisi.

Francis sought to remind people what the nativity actually meant: to ground the event in reality – to remind people that the nativity was not a chocolate box affair of gleaming straw and sterile food troughs, but a dirty, smelly, cold, faeces-covered battle of endurance for a young girl and her much older husband.

The incarnation, the miracle of the incarnation was the choice of a God who was prepared to pour himself out for us: not only at the end of his life in the triumph of the cross, but at the beginning. The incarnation was an act of vulnerable humility, of great risk.

The heresy of docetism suggests that God only appeared in human form, that the incarnation was symbolic, that the crucifixion did not kill, that Christ did not need to eat, drink or even, dare one suggest it, defecate. Such heresy was rightly crushed by the great Bishop Ignatius of Antioch in his writings and condemned by ecumenical council, but I suggest to you this morning, that there is an element of docetism in all of us, an unwillingness to accept the vibrant truth of the incarnation, a temptation to saccharinise the nativity:

“The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes
But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”

…as that Christmas Carol goes. I spoke about this to the Christmas gathering of the Mother’s Union, and recall it now. We so-often willingly collude with the unrealistic, unincarnational concept of an unreal, docetic Jesus, when we should be prepared to grasp that uncomfortable truth: that God-is-with-us, that Emmanuel was incarnated as a human being, and that he became one of us.

What is Away in a Manager trying to prove? That Christ was sinless? Certainly, Christ was sinless, but no child cries because of sin, children cry because that is how they communicate. The word, the divine logos, became flesh and his first communications with us were not the beatitudes, or even “it is finished” but a cry of hunger, of cold and for a clean nappy.

God calls you, to look beyond the chocolate-box sentimentality of the nativity images story: underneath there is reality, underneath there is the incarnation.

Peer through the Christmas Crib and spy El Caganer in the background, for he is everyman, he is us, he is the link between ourselves in our basest moments, and the mystery of incarnation. Remember that even he, us, all of us, is present at this sacred moment. El Caganer may be crude, a little unseemly and perhaps even a little incongruous amid the precious, fragile works of art in the crib, but then again, so are we my friends, and God welcomes us to the crib to worship the Christ-child as well.

Amen.