Sermons: Triduum 2005

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.