Sermon: Corpus Christi 2009

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Audio of this sermon (Scroll down to find in the playlist)

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

At Theological College we were always taught that the best sermons consisted of three key points; and so on one Feast of Corpus Christi, a young, dashing ordinand stood up to preach what was arguably the most comprehensive and theologically profound three point sermon ever given.

…and this is what I said:

  • Point 1: Jesus is God
  • Point 2: Mary is his Mother
  • Point 3: Go to Mass

And then sat down, earning the eternal gratitude of the entire congregation. You don’t need 45 minutes of preaching and endless bible allusions, modern-day anecdotes or recordings of Jazz classics to make the point.

On this feast day, of all days, when we come to encounter Jesus Christ in the most Holy Sacrament of the altar, we see revealed in the hands of the priest these simple, yet profound truths which speak not only to our own personal faith journeys and our own struggles to become more Christ-like, but which speak of the very purpose of the whole world: to respond to the living God in whom we have our being.

Our alternative community, Blesséd speaks of the whole world as sacrament, as having been marked by the fingerprints of God, and yet there are times and places, rituals and objects where the barrier between the sacred and the created appears very thin indeed: where the presence of God in our midst, in almost indescribable ways is palpably real: on a deserted beach in the South West, knelt in the Holy House at Walsingham, at the end of a decade of the Rosary and, perhaps most commonly, when bread and wine are transformed into the Blessed Body and Precious Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Reformation, that period of political and theological upheaval, that schism in Western Christendom in the 16th Century did away with many of the excesses of a Church which had lost sight of the Gospel that drove it and had retreated into the pursuit of power rather than the proclamation of love. But in doing that, it casually discarded much that enriched the faith and which we have spent the last 500 years in England slowly regaining: the sensuous, the metaphysical, the recognition of a corporate faith over an individualistic one and most of all in the Anglican Tradition, the rightful place of the Sacramental Life at the heart of the Reformed, yet Catholic Tradition that characterises true Anglicanism, and which if we actually allow ourselves to recognise it, has never actually gone away.

We return, as we celebrate this feast, to the simple recognition of Jesus Christ revealed in broken bread and wine outpoured; but not simply to remember what he did a couple of thousand years ago, but to do what he commanded us to do at the Last Supper and to bring him into our present.

Once again, English proves itself to be an inadequate language for the utterances of God: when Jesus says “Do this in remembrance of me”, he uses the word anamnesis – which is much more complex a word than simply remember – it is connected to the Hellenistic concept of bringing the past into the present, and so when he says “This is my body” “This is my blood”, we should take him on face value.

After all, we never have a problem with any of his other sayings do we?  We don’t decry his use of the title “Son of Man” or deny his messiahship, his divinity? And yet, those who claim to hold most to biblical inerrancy will gladly disavow the very words of Christ:

“Take this all of you and drink from it. This is my blood of the new covenant which will be shed for you and the forgiveness of sins. Do this in anamnesis of me”.

Although you might not be able to clearly see it, at the back of this very church, painted on tin panels are those words of institution, those words of Christ and which now they are exposed are a daily reminder of the sacramental, the Anglo-Catholic tradition which is the heritage of this Church here in Elson.

On this holy altar, the most amazing transformation takes place: the ordinary things of bread and wine become transformed into the most divine; ordinary people like you and I are transformed by our encounter with that transformation, and we ordinary people become extraordinary.

St. Francis of Assisi, Deacon of the Church meditated on the sacrament in these words:

Let everyone be struck with fear, the whole world tremble,
and the heavens exult when Christ, the Son of the living God,
is present on the altar in the hands of a priest!

O wonderful loftiness and stupendous dignity!
O sublime humility! O humble sublimity!
The Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God,
so humbles Himself that He hides Himself for our salvation
under an ordinary piece of bread!

See the humility of God, dear friends, and pour out your hearts before Him!
Humble yourselves that you may be exalted by Him!
Hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves, that He Who gives Himself totally to you may receive you totally!

“He hides Himself for our salvation under an ordinary piece of bread!” – what power is hidden between the molecules of this bread and this wine! Outwardly, there is no change, and yet we sense as we draw near with faith, that the power of this sacrament has the power to transform. For just like the wind blowing on the trees, we witness the power of the wind without seeing the wind itself; so we also see the work of the Spirit on the people who receive the sacrament without being able to see explicitly the God whose fingerprints are behind it.

The celebration of the Mass is the most profound outpouring of our theology: a declaration of the divinity of Christ, and his emergence in the world, born of the blessed Virgin; as we see the Emmaus Christ revealed in our midst, we are transformed, just as countless generations of the faithful have been transformed.

Dom Gregory Dix, an Anglican Monk and eminent liturgist of the last century wrote so vividly:

“Was ever a command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacles of human greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth.

Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetish because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so, wounded and prisoner-of-war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc

One could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of christendom, the priests have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei — the holy common people of God.”

Was ever a command so obeyed? Never! And so it is with faith and joy that we come and gather around this holy altar: priests and people, God and lovers-of-God, the poor, the marginalised, the great and the weak, the wealthy and the ill, the addicted and the unsure. We come to obey his command, and be fed by the life-giving sacraments.

Jesus is God.

Mary is his Mother, and he is therefore man.

Go. To. Mass.


Sermon: Lent 2 Year B – Transfiguration

Text: Mark 9:2-10

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

The Transfiguration of Our Lord is one of those epiphanous moments – an episode where Jesus Christ is revealed as he truly is – not merely a fairly special man, or a marvellous teacher, or even a thoroughly good bloke, but he is shown to be God himself, revealed to us in all his glory. ‘Transfiguration’ in Greek is ‘Meta-morphos’ – from which we get metamorphosis – a change from one thing to another.

The Transfiguration was a marvellous experience for the closest of Jesus’ disciples, those privileged to see this revelation at first hand; and it was an experience which they wanted to go on forever. This is why Peter makes that rather embarrassing comment about making three tents for Moses, Elijah and Jesus – because if he sets up somewhere for them to stay then by the rules of Middle-Eastern hospitality, they would be required to remain until the host wished them to leave.

Few of us are privileged enough to have such a close, intimate experience of God. Few of us encounter directly the glory and power of God. It may appear like a fairy story, or the sort of marvellous experience that only happens to other people. But the experience of God in these epiphanies need not be so dramatic – God is to be found in the stillness and quietness of your own prayers, in the Eucharist, in the Rosary, in exposition of the blesséd sacrament – quiet prayer in the presence of the sacrament. God is to be experienced in the dark and the quiet as well as the bright mountain top, and that experience of God, with all the comfort, all the reassurance it offers is no less valid.

But what draws me to this episode is not the dramatic. At the end of the great experience, Jesus, Peter, James and John came down from the mountains and returned to the plains and the city. It would seem a little odd at first glance to concentrate on that text, rather than the glories that preceeded it, but this morning, this is what I want us to focus upon.

After the glorious vision, their glimpse of heaven, they had to return to their daily lives, however humdrum, however exciting, however ordinary, and they had to get on with the job in hand – being Jesus’s disciples.

Through encountering Christ in person, many in the towns and villages of Galillee, in the city of Jerusalem were changed, transformed, renewed. Many more in the diaspora and the cities of Greece and then Rome who never met the man were changed, inspired, revitalised and now we – we who are removed from the action by immense time and distance – are changed, invigorated, challenged and moved by the man who stood besides Moses and Elijah. But we can, and do see Jesus. We feel him. Here. In this very sacred space, and in that, we are changed.

The Mass offers us a Transfiguration, a metamorphosis, it offers us the bread and wine changed into the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The Mass offers us the mountain-top experience in the beauty of liturgy and the glories of music. The Mass is the meeting point between normal human beings like Peter, James and John, like you and I, and with God Almighty.

And after the Mass… well, you just have to come down from the mountain, go home and get on with the job in hand – making the Yorkshire Puddings, and being Jesus’ disciples.

The key thing therefore, is not necessarily what happens on the mountain-top, as wonderful as it may be, but what that Transfiguration experience does for us the other days of the week.

The methods through which we get on with the difficult and demanding job of being one of Jesus’ disciples are written out for us in the reading: The Transfiguration Story in Luke has the commands: “Stand up”. “Do not be Afraid”, and in Mark we have “This is my Son, Listen to Him.”

“This is my Son, Listen to Him.”

Their experiences can feed our own worship, and together we can grow to worship God in a Mass that truly reflects his glory. We follow a Jesus who is not just for Sunday best, and not restricted to those who think themselves worthy of being a Christian, but we follow a Jesus who came to earth with the sole purpose of saving us all, regardless of how good or bad we think we are.

The Mass is at the heart of this: a working out of salvation in bread and wine, the people of God working together to sense the movement of God within them.

I passionately believe that what happens here, in the presence of God, what happens on that altar, through the grace of God has the power to transform, to transfigure – transfigure, change, metamorphosise, save us all. There is power in these sacraments, in the real presence of Christ among us.

The Mass is not therefore an optional experience. It is not a spectator sport, but the coming together of Priest and People and Almighty God at the sacrifice.

It is the stuff of your life lived out in the cities and the plains, away from the mountaintop. If you think that your Christian life can be expressed without the Mass, then my dear friends, you are very much mistaken, for this is the food for the journey, the well-spring of our faith, the completion of Christ’s saving work on earth until he comes in glory. The power of the Eucharist is the most powerful agent on earth, for nothing else has quite the power to enable, to transform, to transfigure, to save.

This is why I passionately believe that the mass is the centre of our worshipping lives here at St Thomas the Apostle, why we begin all our PCC meetings before the sacraments, why Mother Margaret opens the Mother’s Union with Mass and why in a week or so’s time, the Annual Meeting will begin with Mass. We place ourselves, all of us, into the hands of Almighty God through that most powerful act and the whole of our mission becomes a living proclamation of the saving power of Christ in this most wonderful, most mysterious, most unfathomable sacrament.

So, my dear friends in Christ, enjoy and participate: fill yourself here at this altar with the experience from the top of the Mountain, and then do like Peter, James and John and go back into the real world and get on with it.

“This is my Son, the Beloved, Listen to Him.”   Amen.

The hardcore are settling in…

For the second or third time, my YouTube videos have had comments which can basically be summarised as:

“You’re an Anglican, your orders are invalid, and so you can’t have a real presence/the mass/be referred to as Father”

It would appear that a new anti-ecumenist position is takingt over Rome, undoing any good that has happened since Vatican II, and reaffirming the 1896 Papal Bull that ignored the Church of England’s very real and very valid claim to proper Apostolic Succession. The return of SSPX and now Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor’s demotion at Synod today of the CofE as an “ecclesial community” rather than a part of the ‘proper’ (ie Roman) body of Christ shows that Benedict is leading a backlash, looking forward to lots of new ‘plastic catholics’ as one Roman Cemetery manager once described the formerly Anglican and we are back to the 19th Century.

I just deleted the comments, simply because they are just rude; it’s a terrible ‘Christian’ vice to condemn others in that way, and most presumptious of other Churches to denigrate my orders, which are held to be valid by other, older Churches (like the Orthodox). I believe in the Real Presence. I believe in God working through me for the people of God and some over-fervent Roman is not going to distract me from the work of God and the proclamation of the Good News in this place.

Most of the Romans I know would not dream of this ecclesial fascism, so from where is this rise of Church-Nazism coming? Oh yes, the Curia, and their “ecclesial communities”.

Confirmation at the Cathedral – Full Immersion – the Works!

Last night, we gathered in the Cathedral for Baptism and Confirmation. One of our Sunday’s group, the lovely Becky had opted for full immersion baptism. There were four adult confirmands also: Charmaine, Dave, Charlotte and Vicky – all young, vibrant and filled with the spirit. God has done some marvelous things with all of these people and it has been a privilege to share the journey with them, on Monday evenings filled with wine, coffee, bible and modern cinema (the Journey of Faith course wot I wrote) and of course, the Pizza, Twister and Eucharistically centred Sunday’s Youth Group. Such fun. Such a privilege.

ports_fontThe font  in the Cathedral is deliberately coffin-like and the whole service is journey – from Nave to Baptistry to Altar, a journey of life. Here we die to our past. Becky was asked by the lovely Bishop Godfrey Ashby if this was her faith. She replied “yes” and climbed in to the font in her jeans and funky sweater. She was baptised and she rose from the water a new creation, dripping in water, soaked in the spirit. The sight of her (I was close by) was so moving; from death to life, life in all its fulness (yes, you know by now it’s John 10:10, isn’t it always John 10:10?). I was visibly caught in the emotion of it all.

A group from HMS Collingwood was then baptised, but just by sprinkling. Not as good, I thought, but joyous and no less special.

Thence to the altar, where we each brought our candidates in turn to kneel, have hands laid and annointed. I know they were nervous, but it all went without a hitch.

Prayers, baptism candles, and a procession out to applause. Very good. Very, very good. Lots of photos then, but I havn’t seen any yet. Maybe I can backload a few when people send them to me.

What made the evening especially lovely was seeing the group from Holy Spirit, led by Fr Phillip, my successor. Most of the young people being confirmed I knew really well, some from very small indeed. They flocked around me (one telling me off for leaving because the youth group at Holy Spirit had subsequently folded) and it was so rewarding to see many whom Lou and I had started Sunday School with now entering into the full life of the Church. Well done them. It was good to see Fr Philip and his wonderful (my) training incumbent, the Area Dean of Portsmouth. What I havn’t told Fr Michael yet is that in the chapter of the forthcoming book there is a footnote especially about him.

Canon Fr. Michael Lewis SSC, a deeply inspirational priest with the wisdom and conviction to simply let his curate get on with it unhindered. I remain forever in his debt.

I pray they don’t cut it out.

Confirmation is special because it is affirmation of faith by the confirmand and a response from God through the grace of annointing. The church says to the candidate “we value your faith”, especially to a young person. At S. Thomas, I am now deeply convinced that Confirmation is not the gateway to the sacraments, and that those desirous to participate should not be excluded from communion, whether baptised, confirmed or not. Most of these confirmands are therefore (but not universally) already communicants. This is not by whim or bloody-mindedness on my behalf, but a deep-seated theological conviction worked out with my Clergy colleague and my parish – our task is to administer God’s life-giving sacraments without hesitation and let God deal with that – let God do the healing and the reconciling through the power of the blessed sacraments. Jesus didn’t demand baptism certificates of the 5,000 on the mountain (Matthew 14:13-21) or the 4,000 on the plain Matthew 15:32-39. Even Judas shared the Last Supper.

This approach to administer the sacrament to all means that the role of Confirmation is changed: certainly not diminished, but re-emphasised as being about Commitment; a staging post on the journey, a sacramental act alongside their baptism, the eucharist and their growing reconciliation with God. I believe that this makes more pastoral sense, a better missionary opportunity and values the Confirmands as growing Christians, no longer secret initiates. I love what Confirmation stands for, and I am very, very, very proud of ‘my’ five and those from Holy Spirit I have journeyed with as well. Deo Gratias!

Sermon: Ordinary 27, Year B

Sermon: Ordinary 27, Year B
Text: Genesis 2:18-24 Mark 10:2-16

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

Those whom God has joined together, let no one put asunder.

I  promise…until death do us part. This is my solemn vow.

How many of us have repeated these words? They seemed so true, so beautiful, so eternal, so right, didn’t they, when we first said them? Yet for some of us, they have become bittersweet. With near half of all marriages in this country ending in divorce, there is scarcely a family that remains untouched by the pain of separation and divorce.

Let’s look at this challenging text from Mark’s Gospel…

Jesus has moved on from Capernaum to the land across the Jordan River, continuing to teach the growing crowds of people who congregated wherever they discovered Jesus to be. Word had spread. Jesus had healed the blind, deaf, and lame; he had cast out demons and had been transfigured by his Abba in the presence of Peter, James, and John.

And Jesus had taught. And taught. And taught some more. He had spoken with passion and authority about the Kingdom of God, about the nature of sin, about the cost of discipleship. He had spoken with love and joy and welcome to sinners, to all who recognized that they had fallen short of their Creator’s ideals, with a message of hope, of redemption, of repentance and new life. Again and again, Jesus had taught those who came to hear the lessons of God’s love for them, about God’s desire that men, women, and children learn to live without fear, God’s desire that they become lamps through which the divine love might shed light on all who knew them.

Over and over, as word of his teachings and his miracles spread, those in the ” religious establishment” of his time stepped forward out of the crowds to do their best to trip this Jesus up. They were the ones who were knowledgeable about the will of God. They were the experts. They knew. After all, God’s will had been revealed in Holy Scripture, once and for all. They knew the Law. This Jesus was such a know-it-all young radical; what did he know? What kind of education did he have, after all? He was just a carpenter’s son from a backwater town in Galilee.

Here they are at Jesus again. “We’ll get him this time,” they thought. “This time we’ll trick him into saying something we can nail him on.”

“Teacher,” they asked, chuckling behind their hands, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Well, of course it was lawful; they knew Moses had said it was, but they asked anyway.

Jesus turned the question back on them: “What did Moses command you?” “Well, Moses said it was okay, that a man could divorce his wife anytime he wanted to, just be deciding to do it and drawing up the necessary paperwork.”

“Why?” asked Jesus. “Why would Moses do this, knowing that in the creation stories God had created Adam and Eve as equals, bone of each other’s bone, flesh of each other’s flesh, for eternity? Why?”

The Pharisees had no answer for Jesus. Jesus refused to be tricked into betraying the will, the dream, the desire and intent of God in favor of the letter of the Law. “I’ll tell you why,” he said. “Because of your hardness of heart; because God knew that your humanity would lead you away from one another. Human beings have hard hearts. That’s a fact. Human beings–even the best ones–fall short of God’s dreams for them, and they fall short. God’s dream is that each couple be divinely joined, joined with God as the “third partner” in the marriage, and that all who witness this divine union respect and uphold it, that no one dare to separate it.”

It was true then. It’s true now. Despite our strongest hopes, our best intentions, we humans have hard hearts. We fall short of God’s dreams for us, for our lives together. People change. We grow, sometimes in different directions. Sometimes we become cruel to each other; we forget that we are indeed “one bone and one flesh” and we begin to destroy one another, oblivious to the fact that we’re destroying ourselves in the process. Sometimes marriages have to end to keep this self-destruction from totally eradicating all possibility of a future life for one or both partners. Estrangement happens. We’re human.

However, marriages don’t exist in a vacuum. Christian marriages include the entire community. They’re not just about vows made between two individuals. We who witness these vows make our own promises: that we will do all in our power to uphold these two persons in their marriage. “We will!” we answer with enthusiasm.

There really is no way to take these difficult words and stuff them back into Jesus’ mouth, is there? There are churches that do not permit remarriage after divorce under any circumstances. There are those who do nothing to try to uphold two struggling persons in the vows they have made to one another. Mirroring the secular culture, for which everything is temporary, transient, we hear, “Oh, you’re divorcing? That’s too bad. Oh well. Better luck next time,” as though Jesus’ words had never been uttered.

And there are faith communities in which each couple finds support and guidance, through the good times and the rough. They share the struggles that take place in every long-lived marriage: problems with children; financial struggles; differing priorities for time and resources; the cyclic nature of sexual activity, with physical and romantic attractions to one who is not one’s spouse; destructive lifestyles of whatever kind; abuse, addiction, and plain and simple boredom. By walking as a community through the rollercoaster of life, they share a journey of life, a journey of faith which can be a support.

I know a story of one such community: When he was 54 years old, this man married his school sweetheart. They had been married for 30 years, and then he met a younger woman who seemed to be his “soulmate”: They thought the same way. They enjoyed the same activities, loved the same authors, the same music. They completed each other’s sentences. It was true love, he believed.

Through much struggling, and with support and counsel from his local priest and church, he turned away from this lovely woman who seemed to promise so much, but who threatened what God had joined together, and he returned to his wife. They have now been married for 51 years, and he has not regretted his decision. He explains it as a natural, human phenomenon, and states that the vows he made before God were all that kept him in his marriage 20 years ago. But he and his wife prayed together through the crisis, which lasted three, almost four, years. They have offered this to others for many years now, and their experience has “upheld” many in their promises.

I am sure by now, you can see what kind of community I seek to foster in this Church: a church which seeks to uphold the sacrament of marriage and yet is realistic about our human frailty and not condemnatory when things do, unfortunately, go pear-shaped.

For the ideal can’t always happen. It doesn’t always work. There are times when we must divorce.

Christ has given us the ideal. He has spoken to us the living Word of our Creator. When Christians divorce, it may never be in a cavalier, casual way. Divorce must be accompanied by repentance, even if it is perceived to have been the “fault” of only one party. The two are one bone, one flesh. Ideally, both partners can repent, can do that 180-degree turn back toward God and toward God’s hopes and dreams for them. But if not, then one can do it alone for the two. In addition, the community must repent as well of their failure (our failure) to “do everything in [our power to uphold these two persons in their vows.” Repent, and begin anew, as we do with any of the myriad ways we fall short of God’s ideals.

And here’s the good news. What happens when we repent, when we “turn around” once again to face our God? We are redeemed, washed clean by the love of God in Christ, by the face of Christ in one another, and by the grace that surprises us with new life, with new possibilities, with new hopes. We can claim again God’s dreams for us, claim again the unique image of God in which each of us is created, and as we allow ourselves to be healed, we can once again become the lamps through which the love of Christ is made known in the world. Stronger, wiser, we continue the rich and complicated and joyous journey toward the Kingdom. Together. And that’s good news!