Sermons: Triduum 2005

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Sermon: Mass of the Lord’s Supper, 2005

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

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

As this sermon appears so uncommonly early in the liturgy of Maundy Thursday, it is just as well that I intend to survey an important part of the Mass for the next few acts of worship. The theme of our Holy Week preaching this year are based upon phrases which are at once both familiar and yet strange to us: sentences which are repeated at every Mass and yet are described as Mysteries, just beyond our understanding, in the realm of the transcendent God.

I am speaking of the Memorial Acclamations, which in most of the Eucharistic Prayers occur after that point when the Priest recalls the words and actions that Jesus did at the Last Supper – the Institution Narrative and before the great Thanksgiving prayers or Anaphora.

The Memorial Acclamations all recount some facet of the mystery of this passiontide, indeed they are often introduced with “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith”.

Holy Week is often regarded as a journey: a journey through the mystery of our salvation. In each of these Holy Week Sermons I shall be using one of these Memorial Acclamations as our guide as we make this journey, and we explore a mystical relationship between the actions played out nearly 2000 years ago and our own response to them.

Tonight, as we recall the Last Supper we are reminded of the centrality of the Eucharist in our proclamation of Jesus Christ: “Every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death Lord Jesus, until you come in glory”

Tomorrow, on Good Friday we will explore the mystery of the cross as our redemption: “Lord, by your cross and resurrection, you have set us free, you are the Saviour of the World.”

And we will conclude on Easter Sunday with the overarching mystery of faith, “Christ has Died. Christ is Risen. Christ will come again”, which in its simple and direct Creedal statement encapsulates this season.

In the Church of England there is a danger that we take for granted that which is so special. Tonight, on the night that he instituted it, it is right that we should consider the nature of the Eucharist, and not be afraid of a theological interpretation of it.

The four-fold shape of the Liturgy, as described by Dom Gregory Dix identifies that the celebration of the Eucharist has from the earliest of times involved, the taking of bread, the giving thanks for it, the breaking of the bread and the giving to others. This shape which springs directly from Scripture, from the Gospels, but most significantly from the letter of Paul to the Corinthians.

The Last Supper did not spring from Christ without precedent: the disciples were gathering to share the Passover meal, the night of deliverance out of Egypt, a meal imbued with significance and faith. Out of this meal, deliverance would also spring.

The Eucharist is not merely an act of the past, but one of the present, where Christ’s sacrifice is brought and made real before us. Unlike the Passover meal, which was a commemoration of a past deliverance, we are continually reminded at each offering of the present deliverance which Christ as won for us. The technical term for this is anamnesis , the same root Greek word for memory – think of mnemonic, but it is a word which brings the past into the present: the sacrifice of the Mass was and is and is to come, much like Our Lord himself.

One of the fundamentals of Christianity that we are all members one of another: a body of Christ. In the Eucharist we join in an activity which is essentially corporate. A corporate activity is not simply a number of individuals acting individually. We join in the Eucharistic liturgy together as people and priest because it is a ritual mirroring of that Last Supper. By joining in it, we act not only as individuals but as members of Christ’s body dispersed over the face of the earth and down the ages: the Last Supper of Our Lord becomes the First Supper of all Christians.

The proclaiming of Christ’s death, until he comes again is identified by the Apostle Paul as beginning with this Last Supper: it is therefore not a private act, even though it took place away from the public gaze, but an act of the most public significance. The Mass is therefore not an individual one, but a wholly corporate response: we must appreciate that the Catholic understanding is not about my faith, my communion, my salvation (the worst excess in my mind about Protestantism); but our faith, our communion, our salvation.

If the Mass were merely a fellowship meal, and empty memorial in which Christians looked back to the Passion and remembered Jesus Christ, it would be similarly inadequate: but the Mass is also the Lord’s because, in the light of the resurrection, he is present, and we are supping with him, as we look as much forward to the future as back to the past: not a wake at all, but a welcome: truly in the words of the memorial acclamation, “Every time we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus, until you come in glory”

The Eucharist is not only a matter of eating and drinking, but of giving and of being given in return. We give bread and wine to God and in our turn we are given a morsel of bread to eat and a sip of wine to drink. It is easy to view the giving in each direction as symbolic: the people of God offer up the fruits of their labours, their work, and God gives us not merely the means of physical sustenance, but himself, his Spirit, to enliven and fortify us as we go forth into the world.

But who are we to presume to offer God gifts? To give and be given in return either suggests a mechanical or commercial transaction, but God cannot be bargained with. It is only because we have first been invited to share with Christ in God’s banquet that we are on a footing to offer any contribution of our own.

The Mass represents not only the Last Supper, but also the passion of Christ. In the Orthodox Church, the Corporal, the cloth upon which the Eucharist is celebrated is not a fair white linen cloth that we in the west are used to, but it is a simple line drawing of the entombment of the dead Christ: The transubstantiated or consubstantiated body of Christ is broken over the broken body of the entombed Christ – I cannot think of a more potent symbol of Christ’s sacrifice, both then and present in the Mass. It is a proclamation of Christ’s death, a death of the past, but an anemnesis of the future – as we look for His coming in glory, it is a death freely given for us.

At the heart, therefore, of this Mass is grace: God’s free and boundless gift of himself through Jesus Christ. As he took the bread and broke it, saying “This is my body”, he gave of himself, and he continues to give. It was Christ’s grace-filled gift which characterised the last supper in the upper room, and it is his grace which comes and is really present with us at this Mass.

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: that memorial acclamation is therefore more than apt:

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

Amen.

Meditation for Good Friday: the Final Seven Words of Jesus

Opening Hymn: When I survey the Wondrous Cross A&M67

1. “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23: 34) (2:07)

Forgiveness is terribly easy to ask from others, and yet so very hard to give from ourselves. As Our Lord was nailed to the instrument of his passion, he spoke asking the Father’s forgiveness, whilst he freely forgave them himself, for as St. John repeatedly notes: “I am in the Father and the Father is in me”.

Forgiveness is at the heart of the Gospel: at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, Christ calls for repentance, metanoia to herald the Kingdom of God. His whole ministry is to seek to reconcile God and his creation once more, and the route to that reconciliation is forgiveness: The woman accused of adultery was told “go, and sin no more” (John 8:11), the paralysed man lowered through the roof told that “his sins were forgiven” (Mark 2:5), and the woman who anointed Our Lord’s feet was given the same dispensation (Luke 7:48): “your sins are forgiven”: simple words, such power, such authority.

We pray that we too may be forgiven, for our manifold sins. Forgiveness is part of God’s grace and is freely given, if we but have the courage to ask for it.

We pray that we may also forgive: “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”. It is not only those who bear hammer and nails against us whom we need to forgive; but those whose offenses are in comparison, quite small. “How many times should I forgive my brother, Lord? Seven times?” “Not seven, but seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22).

“They know not what they do” … and neither do we.

(Silence)

2. “I assure you: this day you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:34) (2:14)

The penitent thief is the only person recorded in the Scriptures who speaks directly to Christ, addressing him by his own name. Not Rabbi, not Master, not Lord, but simply and directly: Jesus.

Such honesty was not bourne out of overfamiliarity, or rudeness, but out of a common bond between them: the bond of the condemned cell. Our Lord and these thieves shared an intimacy which we can only hope to aspire to: to be alongside Christ, and more importantly, to have Christ alongside us in our hour of need.

When we glance away from our own crucifixion, we may just be able to glimpse Christ crucified alongside us; suffering as we suffer, suffering greater as he suffers not only our pain and anguish, but the pain, anguish and bitterness of the whole world. And we hope to hear those words, available to all who have the courage to ask of Christ: “You will be with me in paradise”

We pray for the faith to spot Christ alongside us, especially when we are so wrapped up in our own crucifixion to notice His; and we pray that we may have the opportunity, no matter how fleeting or transitory, to experience the intimacy of Christ: to feel his love and concern, to allow his Grace to guide us to our heavenly home.

(Silence)

3. “Woman, behold your son.” (John 19: 26) (2:21)

Theotokos – “God Bearer”: Our Lady carried such responsibility; in her womb, in her upbringing of the Saviour of the World, in her faithful following of her Son’s ministry from that first sign at Cana in Galillee (John 2) to the foot of the Cross and to the Garden early that Sunday. It was a responsibility which would be almost impossible for any human to carry alone, but for God’s grace. The same Grace which removed the stain of Original Sin from Our Lady is the same Grace which redeems us all, and all we have to do is to accept that Grace from God: “be it done unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38)

We give honour to Our Lady because she is a model for us of humankind’s response to God in faith. So often we find our own faith obstructed by practicalities and earthly considerations: other things to do or say and God’s call to us buried amid the hubbub of daily life and work. Our Lady’s response was to say yes to God without thought or consideration or reference to earthly concerns – a miraculous child born of an unmarried girl far away from home. For this faith, Our Lady is rewarded with a further task: as the beloved disciple is commended to her, so we are commended to her care and her intercession, for we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.

We pray alongside Our Lady, our adoptive mother to God, asking her intercession for those things in our lives which need the Grace of God to help us through: the sicknesses, the anxieties, the worldly concerns.

We pray that our response may also be “be it done unto me according to thy word”.

(Silence)

4. “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27: 46) (2:28)

There is a dark night that the soul must endure, before it reaches it’s goal – to be with God. On that journey as described by St. John of the Cross, there will be times when one might be forgiven for feeling forsaken by God.

Psalm 22, which Our Lord recalls, speaks of desolation and isolation, but if we focus only on the first half of the Psalm, we lose to context of Christ’s quotation: Christ spoke in an age when the Scriptures were identified by their opening lines: we begin with “Our Father…” and we know the rest of the prayer, Our Lord said “Eloi, Eloi…” and the faithful would recall the whole Psalm. The second and longer part of the Psalm speaks of faith and redemption, of Grace and fulfilment.

For each dark night, there is a brilliant day which follows it.

Even with the sins of the world on his back, Our Lord was not deserted by God, for he carried the promise of hope and fulfilment with him.

In our darkest nights, we pray that we too may be able to recall that promise, that redemption, that Grace. We pray that others whom we see ensnared by despair may be able to complete their Psalm, and see the joy which comes in the morning.

We pray for the dawn from on high, to sustain us through our dark night, until at last we achieve our soul’s perfection.

(Silence)

5. “I thirst.” (John 19: 28) (2:35)

We are driven by our own concerns and needs, our self-centeredness and our conceit; yet the call of the Christian is to emulate the selfless love of Our Saviour as he hung on the tree. Christ’s humanity and his divinity are exposed on the cross, and the vulnerability of He who moved over the waters was displayed for all to see.

Christ’s thirst was not only physical, but was a thirst for our redemption; a desire so compelling that he would accept the cup ordained for him by his Father.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6)

What do we thirst for? Our own needs? Our petty desires? Or do we thirst for Christ, as the deer pants for the water (Psalm 42:1).

We pray for those who are persecuted for their faith or their convictions. We pray that we may receive the Grace to hunger and thirst for righteousness.

(Silence)

6. “It is completed.” (John 19: 30) (2:42)

The last words of Christ were not words of resignation or defeat, but a shout of triumph to cut through the pain and desolation. Christ did not whimper “I am finished”, but proclaimed to the dark sky and the shaking earth the news that death had been conquered, Adam’s had been repaid and humankind would be released: “it is completed!”

“Now Lord, you let your servant depart in peace” (Luke 2:29) was Simeon’s prayer, knowing that what was promised to him had been completed. Too often, we are impatient, and look for the quick fix, the easy way out, the short cut, and thus prevent Our Lord from completing his task within us. We are works in progress, drafts on the potter’s wheel; we are shaped and formed by our loving creator and it is only by his act on the cross that we are complete.

We pray for the Grace given freely to Simeon, to accept with faith the promises God makes to us, for the perseverance to see our calling through to its proper conclusion.

(Silence)

7. “Father, into Your hands I commend My Spirit.” (Luke 23: 46) (2:49)

With these words, the divine word returns back to the one who sent him. His redeeming work complete, the atonement fulfilled. By pouring himself out for us (Philippians 2:5-11), he shows us the supreme self-sacrificing love for us of the Creator. With these final words he died, and the servant suffered for the last time.

What follows is silence.

(Silence)

At the end of our lives, it will only be by God’s Grace that we can commend our souls to him. It is a Grace freely given, fully won, completely atoned.

It is our salvation which calls us from the Cross.

(Silence)

Closing Hymn: Praise to the Holiest in the Height A&M117

Sermon Good Friday, 2005

“Lord by your Cross and Resurrection, You have set us free. You are the Saviour of the World”

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

“Man is born free, and yet everywhere he is in chains”, wrote the libertarian Jean Jacques Rousseau. It is one of the greatest paradoxes of our age that as the strictures of government grow ever laxer, and society fragments at an alarming rate, humankind has never felt more threatened, more lost and more in need of redemption. More freedom to act means less freedom to be.

The First Century world understood plainly the significance of freedom, for slavery was embedded firmly into the culture and the economic structure. A Slave had nothing, a free man had it all, and the act of being granted freedom was an act of kindness and economic folly that belied normal sense.

The crux of this mystery of redemption is the notion that by Christ’s saving act on the cross, we have gained freedom. A price, a ransom, a duty has been paid and a debt settled. Debtors were still being thrown into prison in this country a little over 100 years ago: Charles Dickens’ father was one of them; and yet by this singular, selfless act, we have been redeemed, rather like that shabby suit from the pawnbroker’s.

It is one of the greatest paradoxes of this most paradoxical moment (for how else could one describe the divine logos nailed to an instrument of inhumane torture?) that Christ’s victory should be proclaimed with this act: his death on the cross, that triumph should be secured in disaster. That which follows on the third day is the denouement of that victory, not the victory itself. The act of resurrection is an obvious one really, for one who has defeated sin and death: the victory of the cross has been won by the act of kenosis, of pouring out, the rest is the lap of honour.

So what freedom have we been released to? As we emerge blinking into the daylight, released by Grace, what kind of freedom is entrusted to us? The freedom to disregard rules and instil anarchy? The freedom to loot hospitals and museums of anything not bolted down simply because you now can? The war in Iraq may have been won, but the peace is far from being achieved and the lawlessness and callous disregard for it’s national property or people that the coalition forces demonstrated this week was painfully illustrated in that vandalism. The freedom won for us on the Cross is not freedom for anarchy, but freedom for duty.

Just as Christ so freely gave of himself for us, becoming like a slave as the Philippians heard from St Paul (2:5-11), so we are called in response to that paradox. The freedom granted through the cross and resurrection is the true freedom to be – to be all that God created us for, to be a child of God, to be free to serve Him as openly and gracefully as he served us.

The last word on freedom belongs to St. Paul, who told the Galatians (5:13) that “You, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge in your sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.”

Amen.

Sermon: Easter Day, 2003

“Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again”

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

Every priest who has one subject on which they can bore for England; and that subject is their theological college: harping on at every opportunity of ‘how it was at St. Stephen’s House’, or ‘What they did at Wescott’ or even (and I can’t think where you may have heard this before) ‘the Mirfield Way’. I realise also that this is not the only subject upon which I am capable of providing a cure for insomniacs, but this morning, of all mornings, the Community and the College of the Resurrection whose feast of Title obviously occurs today, has something to say on that mystery of faith: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again”

The motto of the College of the Resurrection, is “Surrexit Alleluia!” – “Alleluia, he is risen!” Whilst I studied at Mirfield, that phrase was always before us, and not just emblazoned under the lamb and flag which was our symbol, but was present in our praying and studying lives. “Alleluia – he is risen!” speaks of faith, of proclamation and of confidence in the centrality of the resurrection to our Christian lives. It also declares it in the present tense: not he was risen, an act of history but today, everyday, for Christ’s resurrection is an act of the present, and the evidence of this resurrection can be proclaimed in the lives of each and every one of us here today.

Each of these memorial acclamations we have used through Holy Week and Easter have been about proclamation: ‘every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus’; ‘Lord by your cross and resurrection, you have set us free, [we proclaim you are the Saviour of the world’ and now, ‘[We proclaim Christ has died, [we proclaim Christ is risen [and we proclaim that Christ will come again.’

So why should we be so confident of our proclamation? Why should we be so sure of Christ’s resurrection, and why should we interpret the absence of a body in the tomb as evidence of the divinity of Christ? These are the sorts of cynical arguments which a whole range of sceptics and pseudointellectuals love to fire at the Christian faith, usually without waiting for our response; so here are a few responses…

Firstly, some argue that Christ probably did not die on the Cross, that it was a sham, a pretence. After all, Pilate was surprised to hear that Jesus had died so soon. However, he sought independent evidence that Christ was dead before he released the body. Ian Wilson in his book on the Turin Shroud noted that ff a crucifixion team in the Roman empire failed to execute one of their prisoners, sentenced under them, then the penalty was their own crucifixion – without clemency. It was in the Roman soldier’s interest to ensure Jesus was dead before he was taken down from the cross, hence the breaking of the legs of the other two – no support from the feet and instant suffocation, and the piercing of Christ’s side, from flowed blood and water – clotted blood and serous fluid, which modern medics describe as a post-mortem separation of blood in the lungs. Jesus was well and truly dead. Christ has died.

Some go on to suggest that having been placed in the coolness of the tomb, he revived himself, removed his shroud and rolled away the stone from the inside. The tomb was hewn in the rock, and the stone was a solid blockage of about a tonne: these stones were designed to prevent grave robbery and so needed a number of people to move them. They were not something that a man on his own, let alone a man who had been beaten and flogged, crucified and passed out, could move. The tomb would have been pitch black, and any unfortunate who was buried alive would not even be able to tell which way was up, let alone where the door was.

Even if Christ had the strength to get out of the tomb; there was a watch placed on the tomb by the Romans; again to prevent grave robbers and the stealing of the body by the disciples.

The most compelling reason for me, however, is the way in which the news of the empty tomb was disseminated: there was no one to witness the event, like the Creation, and the conception of Our Lord, the Resurrection was hidden event, away from the public gaze.

The evidence for the resurrection is based upon the testimony of the empty tomb. And who does Our Lord reveal himself to first? To those whose testimony in first century Israel would be inadmissible – a group of women! This is significant: if the story of the empty tomb was a fiction created by a group of earnest disciples to explain why they stole a body, then the last thing you would do is use these witnesses.

If the disciples had stolen the body of Christ and concocted the resurrection, then as John Stott notes, at least one of them would have revealed their ruse at the first threat of martyrdom, for no sham is worth that much; yet each of the apostles were martyred proclaiming that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

And again, if Christ had not risen from the dead, then his post-resurrection appearances would have been more consistent, less miraculous and such a charismatic leader would have had some greater physical involvement in the subsequent direction of the fledging Christian church, rather than leave it to such an unfaithful, status-obsessed and poorly-understanding rabble of working men. The other evidence is therefore in the two-thousand year witness of the Church – if Christ had indeed not risen, as St Paul said, then we would not be gathered here today, and we would not find ourselves inspired by He who rose from the dead.

The American theologian Michael Schmaus raises an interesting theological question: that 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? What does this question 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 in his own power insofar as he is God.

However and by whatever power Christ has risen, he promised us that he would come again; and after all this, who are we to disbelieve him? He who fulfilled so much scripture, promises to return again in Scripture, and until then we continue to experience his presence. It was a presence which I hope you sensed through this Lent and Holy Week, through the Stations, through the mediations, through the Mass and the Watch of the Blessed Sacrament; and which was made real for us as we sang the great song of the Easter Vigil, the Exsultet.

If you missed out on that journey, and haven’t been here since Palm Sunday, then today must be a little like skipping to the last chapter of a book, for you may have found out how the story ended, but you missed the drama of the story, you missed the highs and lows, the twists and turns, you missed the point.

For those of us who have made this arduous at times but rewarding journey we can see the whole story: that we been empowered by Our Lord and Saviour through this journey of Holy Week, and we can be bold to proclaim “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”

Amen.

Sermon: Lent 4, Year A

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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: Lent 4, Year A

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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: Lent 4, Year A

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

There is a scene in the movie Return of the King, based on the third volume of J.R.R. Tolkien’s saga The Lord of the Rings, where Aragorn gives dead soldiers who deserted their king a chance to regain their honour and be restored to peace if they will help to defend the City of Kings which is under attack by evil powers. He enters a cave through a small crevice in the mountain. It is dark and the sound effects make it clear that this is not a pleasant place. He steps over piles of dry bones heaped up against the walls of the cave and it appears that these are nothing but dry skeleton bones. Suddenly, in the centre of a large room, these skeletal creatures begin to threaten, but they are not really alive. Aragorn offers them a chance to redeem themselves by making good on their pledge to defend good against evil, and to be a part of a community that will restore the kingdom.

The prophet Ezekiel has had a similar experience. In a vision or dream, he is with God in a valley of dry bones. God tells Ezekiel to instruct the bones to listen to the Lord. Then God tells the bones that God will restore their bodies with muscle and flesh and give them breath, resurrecting them to life and knowledge that God is the Lord. God calls upon the four winds to bring life back into the bones and they are alive again. This powerful image of God’s Spirit being breathed into the bodies so that they may live brings us back to the creation story in Genesis.

Both of these stories are about restoration, not of individuals but of communities being redeemed. The dry bones are a metaphor for the desiccated people of Israel. They both have a prophet who is the messenger to the people. They both reject death and trust the stunning freedom and power found when the whole community is restored to their call to action and faithfulness.

Paul’s letter to the Romans talks about the same Spirit of God that gives life. He explains that the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead lives in us and is responsible for giving us life. There are things of the Spirit that give life and things of the world that take life away. The Spirit is not distinguished as separate with things of the flesh being evil and things of the Spirit being good. Hearing these stories during Lent gives us a chance to examine whether we are living according to the Spirit or not. As we near the end of Lent, we are being reminded that God’s Spirit is the source of our life as a community. This Lenten season, we are not only being prepared for Christ’s resurrection but our own.

As we read the Gospel, we have to look beyond the obvious. This account of the resurrection of Lazarus seems strikingly similar to the account we will hear of Jesus’ resurrection in a few weeks. In fact, it is this story that precipitates the plot against Jesus’ life and leads to his death and resurrection. It is a sign story revealing that Jesus acts, not on his own, but from above—and not at the urging of others. It is another account of life coming from God and no one else.

Jesus is told that his friend Lazarus in Bethany is ill. But Jesus does not go there for two more days and not until after the disciples remind him that Bethany is the place where the people wanted to stone him just a short time ago. Jesus takes the opportunity to tell the disciples that he will go there so that they might believe. He is the prophet in this story and it is up to him to bring God’s message of life.

As Jesus approaches Bethany, Martha, one of the sisters of Lazarus, meets Jesus and tells him he is too late, that Lazarus is dead. Jesus tells her that her brother Lazarus will live again because he, Jesus, is “the resurrection and the life. Those who believe, even if they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die”. Jesus is visibly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. When Jesus asks where Lazarus has been laid, Martha says, “Come and see”. Jesus begins to weep. Is he aware that the same things will happen again only to him in just a short time?

Martha sends for her sister, Mary, the sister who anointed Jesus with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair, and asks her to come join them. The other mourners follow her because they think that she is going to the tomb to mourn. The tomb is described as a cave with a large stone in front of it. Jesus asks them to roll way the stone. Then he looks upward and thanks his Father for always hearing him. He calls into the cave and with a loud voice tells Lazarus to come out. Lazarus does come out proving once again that only God gives life.

As a part of our Lenten journey we are given yet another opportunity to walk a path toward restoration with Jesus. But we must walk that path as a community so that there may be a resurrection into new life. We are reminded that only God gives life. These stories give us hope that God will continue to give life even over death.

We are living in a New Age, one that points us towards Pentecost; but first we must experience Easter. We can make some choices about how we get to Easter. We can choose not to focus on the things of the world that distract us and drain our life from us. We can choose to resist loving or accepting some more than others because they are different or think differently. We can deny those things that satisfy a sense of artificial power based on material things. We can choose to nurture a sense that we are individually more important than who we are together, as a family.

Or we can be restored by allowing the Spirit of God to give us life. We can choose to live as Jesus lived. We can live into our call to be a community of faith focused on the strength of our unity. We can give ourselves over to be restored by letting those things that separate us from God and each other die and be resurrected in Spirit to life as faithful believers.

Amen

Sermon: Mothering Sunday, Year A

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Sermon, 5 March 2005
Based on a thought for the day by the Revd Dr Giles Fraser

Perhaps the best known philosophical sound bite is Rene Descartes’ ‘Cogito ergo sum’, ‘I think therefore I am’. What Descartes was trying to do was find some form of knowledge that it’s absolutely impossible to doubt. We can doubt the existence of the outside world or the existence of other people, he argued. After all, we could be dreaming or some higher power could be misleading us. But it’s not possible to doubt that, at the centre of everything, there is some ‘me’ doing the thinking or the doubting. Thus, Descartes concludes, the only thing we can know for sure is that I exist.

This reasoning has become a very influential trap for modern western thought. For in locating certainty within the individual, philosophers have found it fiendishly difficult to describe any sort of bridge that links my own personal reality to the reality of other people. So we become stranded within ourselves, the private self becomes some sort of prison, with the solitary ‘I’ caught deep within. Poets and writers have described this modern condition as one of alienation. They speak of our yearning to find a sense of reality that connects us back up with each other and the world in which we live.

Today is Mothering Sunday. Once we have cleared the decks of hype and sentimentality, we are left to reflect upon the simple intimacy of mother and child. Think about a mother breast-feeding her baby – this isn’t two separate individuals desperately trying to infer the reality of each other. That’s surely why Henry Moore often carved his Mother and Child sculptures out of a single piece of stone. No, the intimacy of the mother feeding her child suggests that the primary reality is not autonomous selves struggling to find each other, but rather that relationship exists prior to a sense of separate selfhood.

Relationship, our fundamental connectedness: these things come first.
For Christians, loving relatedness is the very heart of reality. It’s what binds mother and child as one, just as it binds Father, Son and Holy Spirit as one. For the Trinity is not three separate units trying unconvincingly to squeeze into oneness. Rather, it’s a way of saying that God is fundamentally relational. Simply put: God is the love that binds all things together. And if this is right, then we are not separate units struggling to make contact, but like the mother and child, we are carved from a single piece of stone.

For this reason, we look beyond the four walls of this church and into the world, why yesterday we relaunched the tradition of selling fairly traded goods in this parish with a greatly successful coffee morning and had the opportunity to reflect on how we are all, through our intimacy with Christ, made into one, into the body of Christ. Amen.

Sermon: Lent 3, Year A

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Sermon: Lent 3, Year A
Text: John 4:5-42

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

At a time of year when we have just had snow, hail, frost and cold, it seems a little odd to remind you of times of drought, but knowing the competence of our water companies these days, we know that drought of some kind is never too far away, and perhaps the first hosepipe ban is due next week!

Real drought is very different: when your land is reduced to mere dust, the plants upon which you depend to feed your family shrivel and wither away and your cattle and your children become more invisible by the day. Drought is still a reality for much of the world, and our globally-warmed comfort should not distract us from the reality of what goes on beyond our shores.

Even when there is water to be found, it is often channelled towards cash crops and food that the rich West demands (at pitiful, unfairly traded prices) rather than subsistence for the people who actually work the land. This stark reality of the inhumanity of economics and geography can also be a metaphor for us of the spiritual desert: where in our lives there may be an aridness, a dry separation from the life-giving refreshment of God, or there may be adequate supplies of God’s love around, but which is channelled into inappropriate uses.

Christ lived in a land that was chronically dry. Imagining life in a drought-stricken land might help us identify with the people who lived in the Holy Land during Jesus’ time. They recognized how critical water is for life-especially when there is not enough — or when it is difficult to obtain. We identify with them as we remember how good water tastes when we are thirsty. When we are dry — really dry — there is nothing like a drink of cool, clear water. Using that truth, Our Lord gives us a spiritual lesson based on the common image of water for a thirsty person.

Today’s Gospel story takes us to an unlikely setting – we find Our Lord in a foreign region, Samaria, face to face with a local woman at Jacob’s well. The scene is one of two people who would be very unlikely to strike up a relationship in the normal course of events-a Jewish man and a Samaritan woman, religious enemies, two strangers of the opposite sex, alone together. This was an unusual event, even in public, at a time and in a place where there was a cultural taboo against women and men speaking if they did not know each other.

So when Our Lord asked the woman to give him a drink of water from the well, she was naturally startled, and asked, “How is it that you a Jewish man are asking me, a Samaritan women, to give you a drink?” Ignoring the question, Our Lord employed his metaphor: “if you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying it to you, you would have asked and been given living water.”

The confused woman, thinking he meant fresh water from a spring, replied something about Jacob’s well not having any such water and wondered where Christ would get “living water.”

Our Lord continued with the spiritual imagery, saying:

“Everyone who drinks of this water [from Jacob’s well will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.” Still thinking literally, the woman said she’d sure like to have some of that water because it was difficult to draw water from the well.

As the story continues, however, we discover that the woman of Samaria has a deep thirst of a different kind — a spiritual one. Her life had not been good — she had married five times and the marriages had ended either in divorce or with the death of her spouse; each event had no doubt been devastating. Now she was living in an unmarried relationship, a difficult situation in that time and place.

When the woman finally discovered who Our Lord was and what he had to offer, he took her spiritual thirst and connected it with the life-giving spiritual water that only God can provide. That same power and truth is available to us as well. God provides refreshment for our spiritual thirsts.

There are certainly times when everyone is thirsty in spirit, when spiritual drought makes us especially desperate for the water that can give life to our spirits. These are the thirsty times when life seems shallow and without purpose, or when we can find no peace of mind inside a confused soul, or when doubt or fear paralyses us or when anxiety seems to tear us apart. These are times of a deep dryness of the soul.

For such times, Our Lord offers us what he offered the Samaritan woman. We can have it, too, if we share with her a thirst for acceptance and forgiveness and love for our parched lives.

The season of Lent is a time of self-imposed drought that can help remind us that our deepest thirst can mark a time for God’s spirit to become active in our lives.

Our Lord bids us come to his living water. Calls us to him, for he knows we thirst for acceptance in a desert of rejection, that we thirst for forgiveness in the parched land of our sins, and that we thirst for hope in the dry despair of our frustrations.

For us, as for the Samaritan woman, there comes, into the drought of life, the life-giving water of Christ, the one who also pours his love and grace into every crack and crevice of the dried and broken ground of our spirits.

To each of us who comes to him in hope of living water, for spiritual refreshment, For Christ not only gives us more than an ordinary drink, he offers us a spring of living water that can run deep inside each of us as an ever-refreshing source that can see us through the hard times of drought and direct us to the meaning that can be found only in truth of God.

Amen.

Sermon: Sunday next Before Lent, Year A

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Sermon: Sunday next Before Lent, Year A
Text: Matthew 17:1-9

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. 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.

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: “Stand up”. “Do not be Afraid” (as recorded in the Transfiguration story of St Luke). “This is my Son, Listen to Him.”

I have not so far spoken openly of the Christian Youth Camps that I have been involved in, but as I am sure you can sense, I see them as a relevant, even essential part of my ministry, both here and to the wider church. For the hundreds of young people who gather for the Chichester Diocese Festivals in May and in the first week of the Summer holidays, and the many more who come to a small village in Norfolk for the National Youth Pilgrimage to Walsingham, it is like a Transfiguration experience, as we come away from our parishes, gather together as eager disciples and are given a glimpse of the glory of God in lively and exciting worship, in fun and fellowship, prayer and games, opportunity to encounter God and to study his word and meet with hundreds of other Christians. It is truly a mountaintop experience, and it can be seen in the excitement and enthusiasm of the many young people I and others have helped along this journey over nearly a decade. If you yourselves were to witness any part of this, you would see why I put in so much work into these each year and why it is such a crucial element of the Church’s mission: it is why I ask you to release me for this important work and to pray that young people in this parish will be able to go to them and experience this transfigurative experience themselves.

And after the week of camp, well, just like the disciples, the young people have to come down from that wonderous experience, and return to the cities and the plains, to their own churches, and not be beaten into conforming, but to get on with the job in hand of changing and enthusing us, teaching us from their transfiguration experiences, for they have so much to teach us all.

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.

So, enjoy the experience of the Mass, 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.

Sermon: Ordinary 4, Year A

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Sermon: Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Text: Matthew 5:1-11
“Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God.”

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

Two babies were sat in their cribs, when one baby shouted to the other,
“Are you a little girl or a little boy?”
“I don’t know,” replied the other baby giggling.
“What do you mean, you don’t know?” said the first baby.
“I mean I don’t know how to tell the difference,” was the reply.
“Well, I do,” said the first baby chuckling.
“I’ll climb into your crib and find out.”
He carefully manoeuvred himself into the other baby’s crib, then quickly disappeared beneath the blankets.
After a couple of minutes, he resurfaced with a big grin on his face.
“You’re a little girl, and I’m a little boy,” he said proudly.
“You’re ever so clever,” cooed the baby girl, “but how can you tell?”
“It’s quite easy really,” replied the baby boy,
“you’ve got pink booties on and I’ve got blue ones.”

Purity in heart, Our Lord tells us, will enable us to see God. Purity in heart is this morning’s challenge to us from the Sermon on the Mount. But purity is not about being scandalised that I was about to tell a risqué joke from the pulpit, but rather about clearing out all those things that prevent us from seeing God properly. Purity is not an attitude, but a way of being; and for all that it is one of the hardest (but achievable) challenges that the Christian faith sets us.

If you look again at the Beatitudes, you can see that they appear in a form of order: an 8-step program to become a true child of God, as one would say in fashionable self-help-speak. One Beatitude builds upon another. Our Lord teaches us first to become Poor in Spirit, and empty ourselves of our pride; to be Gentle to others; to Mourn, mourn our past lives, repent and turn to God for forgiveness and comfort; to hunger and thirst for what is right and to work to resolve the world’s and the community’s problems; to be Merciful, particularly to those who wrong us – a lesson perhaps for those contemplating the introduction of house arrest in this supposedly free country ; to be a peacemaker, at home, at work, at school, as well as between nations; and finally, to be persecuted – the ultimate mark of standing up for Christ in this hostile and indifferent world.

Purity in heart therefore is something to which we can all aspire to, something that is not an unachievable ideal available only to the truly Saintly, but is something which we can all attain with the help of the Church through faith in Jesus Christ Our Lord.

Look again at the simple, contrasted phrases of the beatitudes and you see some of the greatest challenges to mankind ever issued. Christ does not advocate the status quo, or a comfortable haven or a quiet life. His teaching subverts the values of the society he lived in then, and continues to subvert a modern society which values material wealth over spiritual richness, values individual self-interest over community spirit and the hedonistic pursuit of individual pleasure over care for others.

The Gospel is not an easy ride. It is not a place of retreat in our declining years. It is a challenge. One of the problems with the translation of the bible used this morning is the use of the word “happy”, which in the context of what I am talking about appears a bit weak. The Greek word is “makarios”, which means “blessed”. Of course, when one is blessed by God, one becomes happy, supremely happy; but the sense of “makarios” is much more profound, in actually receiving the blessing of God, that supreme source of all our happiness.

The Beatitudes do not call for us to withdraw from the world, to wrap ourselves up in a cosy little cocoon of pleasant music and unchallenging liturgy, but to engage with it – to hunger and thirst for the kingdom of God in our midst. To achieve purity of heart, we must not isolate ourselves from the horrors of this terrible world, but stand up and say “this is what Christ call us to…”

If we want to achieve such purity, then we need to put aside our self-interest, put aside our vanity and our prejudice and open ourselves out to an encounter with God. All the way through the Scriptures, encounter with God – burning bush, chariot of fire, 40 days of the wilderness – was always something challenging, uncomfortable and unsettling. In the stillness of prayer and in the bustle of action to better the society around us, the call of God is a call to work not for what we can get out of it, but for the glory of God, through which we ourselves become holy, become pure.

If you can live out the challenge of the beatitudes: and especially to remain pure in heart, amid all the poisonous self-interest of modern society, then you too, will be ‘makarios’ – truly, truely Blessed.

Amen.

Sermon: Ordinary 3, Year A

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Sermon: 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Text: Matthew 4:12-25

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

Difficult question: What drew you to church today? What was it that caused you to get out of bed on your day off, go to the trouble of getting dressed and coming to church this morning when you could be slumming it around your lounge with a decent cup of coffee and a copy of the Sunday Times?

I hope when you came to St Thomas’s today, you came because down somewhere in your heart and mind you have heard the call of Jesus to “Come, follow me.” I hope that just as Jesus called Peter and Andrew from their nets, you too are following the Saviour wherever He leads you.

I hope you have come in response to the God that loves you, to praise His name and meet with him in word and sacrament, echoing the worship of the angels and saints in heaven, for you have heard the call, “Come, follow me.”

This call to follow Jesus is not passive following. His call for us to follow was not a call for us to be “Jesus groupies.” It is not like sitting passively at the feet of some Eastern mystic. Jesus knew that He had a limited time on this earth. If the good news was to be perpetuated from generation to generation and to grow in scope, He had to pass on who He was and His purpose on this earth and send each of His disciples to the “ends of earth” to do the same.

My question for you this morning is this: Are you a disciple or a “Jesus groupie?” Do you come to church because you want to worship the Saviour, to receive the encouragement that only his sacraments can bestow: to deepen your faith so that you can be a better servant of Jesus Christ during the week?

Or do you come because you like the music or the fellowship; or out of sense of duty or habit or guilt when it would be just as easy to have slept in or gone to B&Q this morning?

If you find yourself as one of the latter: if the Christian life stops shortly after 11.15 on a Sunday morning, and with the pound coin you grudgingly give, then I’m afraid you have fallen into the trap of just being a “Jesus” or “church groupie.”

It’s easy for us to slip into that kind of habit: to see church as a comfortable pair of shoes to slip on at the weekend, or part of a social life; but which has little impact on your life in any substance. This sermon could be preached at probably every church in this deanery, in this diocese, perhaps in every church in the land, and is a challenge to each and every one of us: how do we avoid being a Jesus Groupie and become a true disciple of Christ.

Are you a disciple? What is a disciple? A disciple is one who follows Jesus and learns how to duplicate the life, spirit and work that Christ came to do. We are called as disciples to become Jesus to the world around us.

A disciple is anyone who follows Jesus. It is not about whether you are a priest or a lay person. It is not about whether you have a degree from Oxford or from the University of Life and the School of Hard Knocks. Everyone who claims the name of Jesus, if they expect to get to heaven, must be a disciple.

Discipleship means following the leadership of Christ, and modelling our actions on his actions.

Firstly, this means engagement. Our faith is not at all an individual one. It is not about my faith, my belief, my salvation, even though it requires an individual commitment to faith, but it speaks of our faith, our belief, our salvation. The Creed begins with “We believe…” because our faith is an engagement – with God and with other people. To paraphrase St Paul, even if you have faith to move mountains, and do nothing with it, then it is worth nothing.

God willingly offers himself in these sacraments, and invites you to enter into this mysterious union. The least you can do is come forward to receive the blessing of that sacrament. Engage. Inaction is as contrary to the teachings of Christ as outright rejection.

Secondly this means involvement. Just as Andrew and Simon Peter were called to follow, to do things and through that to become active, working apostles, so we are called not just to assent to faith, but to become involved with it. Whether that engagement is an active praying ministry – praying daily for the work of this parish and intentions in the weekly sheet, or whether it means digging deeper into your pocket to help pay for the missionary work that needs to be done here, it does not mean that we can simply let matters drift over us. We face exciting times in this parish and every single person in these pews has crucial part to play in it.

In the wider Church, the Kairos process will significantly change the way this parish works in the future. There is no option for us to pull up our drawbridge and settle into comfortable isolation, for Elson needs to be deeply involved in the life of the Deanery and the Diocese if we are to survive; not least because at present we do not pay our way. This means that we need to get out to other events, to share with other Christians at Deanery and Diocese level, whether that means coming to the Lent Course, our own Patronal festival on (horror of horrors!) a weekday night or a major and important event the life of this parish and the diocese such as Margaret’s ordination.

And Thirdly this means action. We need not think that we can respond to the call of God just on a Sunday morning, for the God we worship is a seven-day God. Even if you consider yourself too old, too infirm or too unsure in faith, to be beating the streets of Elson spreading the Gospel, you all have your quiet and most effective ways of action: the word of encouragement to a neighbour in difficulty, the prayer which sustains the work of your priest and readers and the most effective action of all: coming to mass, and bringing others to mass to encounter God.

Remember the words of Scripture from last week “Come and See” said Andrew, and that is our primary action, to invite others to enter into these sacred mysteries.

It is important that Church is somewhere where we belong, where we are welcomed, where we feel at home. However, if we do not allow the Gospel to touch our lives then Church remains just a social event, and its true meaning is absent from our lives. A Social side to Church is important, and I see here many layers of love and care and compassion which extend over the generations and over the years. But the heart of the Church is the Gospel of Christ, the call to discipleship, to “Follow Him”. At the heart of the Gospel is the drawing closer to God and becoming immersed in His love: the love that offers itself our to you in the beauty of the eucharist.

A Jesus Groupie is only concerned with what Church gives to them. A true disciple gives of themselves for the building of the Kingdom.

Difficult question time again: What are you?

Sermon: Ordinary 2, Year A

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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.