Sunday, Trinity 4

Collect

Almighty God, you have broken the tyranny of sin and have sent the Spirit of your Son into our hearts whereby we call you Father: give us grace to dedicate our freedom to your service, that we and all creation may be brought to the glorious liberty of the children of God; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

God our saviour, look on this wounded world in pity and in power; hold us fast to your promises of peace won for us by your Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Readings

Old Testament

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:

‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?

Gird up your loins like a man,

I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

    ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Tell me, if you have understanding.

Who determined its measurements—surely you know!

Or who stretched the line upon it?

On what were its bases sunk,

or who laid its cornerstone

when the morning stars sang together

and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

    ‘Or who shut in the sea with doors

when it burst out from the womb?—

when I made the clouds its garment,

and thick darkness its swaddling band,

and prescribed bounds for it,

and set bars and doors,

and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther,

and here shall your proud waves be stopped”?

Job 38.1–11

Psalm

1    O give thanks to the Lord, for he is gracious,
for his steadfast love endures for ever.

2    Let the redeemed of the Lord say this,
those he redeemed from the hand of the enemy,

3    And gathered out of the lands from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.

23    Those who go down to the sea in ships
and ply their trade in great waters,

24    These have seen the works of the Lord
and his wonders in the deep.

25    For at his word the stormy wind arose
and lifted up the waves of the sea.

26    They were carried up to the heavens and down again to the deep;
their soul melted away in their peril.

27    They reeled and staggered like a drunkard
and were at their wits’ end.

28    Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he brought them out of their distress.

29    He made the storm be still
and the waves of the sea were calmed.

30    Then were they glad because they were at rest,
and he brought them to the haven they desired.

31    Let them give thanks to the Lord for his goodness
and the wonders he does for his children.

32    Let them exalt him in the congregation of the people
and praise him in the council of the elders.

Psalm 107.1–3,23–32

Epistle

As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says,

    ‘At an acceptable time I have listened to you,

    and on a day of salvation I have helped you.’

See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honour and dishonour, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see – we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return – I speak as to children—open wide your hearts also.

2 Corinthians 6.1–13

Gospel

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

Mark 4.35–41

Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 4

“Rebuke” – how often do you hear that word? I wonder if you have ever used it. Or – Have you ever rebuked anyone? It is something you never hear of nowadays, unless you are reading the bible, that is.

My online thesaurus gave me some alternatives to the word, “rebuke” – to berate, to chide, to lambaste, to reprimand, to scold, to have words with, to remonstrate, to reproach, to upbraid, to criticise, to castigate, to chasten and to chastise. All of those meanings are part of “rebuke” and I think we should understand the range of meaning in that word.

I am sure we have all “had words with” someone who upset us in some way. We may have scolded a child. Undoubtedly, we have berated a sporting villain who had fouled someone badly. Many of our contemporaries remonstrate others on social media one way or another. Why we may even reproach ourselves for our own bad behaviour! All of these experiences feed into the meaning of “rebuke”. – This venerable word, however, does not make it into our contemporary vocabulary, but its meaning is a real part of our own experience.

A “rebuke” is the stock in trade of the prophets. How many times do we hear of God reprimanding his people through the word of a prophet? How often does God upbraid Israel? How great is the chastisement when the Hebrews have fallen by the wayside on that path to the promised land!

Jesus took on this prophetic persona himself, when he called the priests in the temple, “Hypocrites”. He “rebukes” the Jews of his time, and with good reason. His contemporaries have polluted the streams and rivers of righteousness and justice. They had forsaken that high path to the mountain of God and fallen into the mire of a dissolute life, one which has forgotten to dwell on the final cause of all creation, their God. Jesus rebukes them all in so many places. And here in this short passage we hear Jesus criticising his own disciples for their fear. “Don’t you have any faith?” he asks. Then he turns to the storm and commands peace and stillness with his rebuke. The winds abate and the sea calms.

We have all heard this story so many times, but I think it deserves further consideration about its significance for our lives. – Jesus was asleep at the back of the boat, comfortable in the stern on a cushion in the midst of this raging storm. His disciples feared for their lives and criticised Jesus for his casual attitude in the midst of the heavy seas and high winds. They woke him with the plaintive, “Don’t you care about us?” They wondered about this man’s feelings toward them, these men who had left everything to follow him. Had they hitched their wagons to the right star? – Here they were at risk on the water in the midst of a storm and that man was asleep!

Don’t we all feel this when the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune come down so hard upon our heads that we despair? Aren’t we like the disciples when we begin to wonder, “Why?” We are in our own storms, aren’t we? Collectively, we are now in the midst of this never-ending pandemic. Personally, we are in our own dark places. And what do we do? We rebuke others – the prime minister and his cabinet for not dealing with things so that we can carry on with our affairs as if nothing has changed in the world. We revile our contemporaries for their callous disregard of health and safety. And so on … but whatever we say nothing changes.

We do not stand in our own boats to rebuke the wind, do we? We do not say, “Peace, be still!” to the seas of troubles in which we sail individually and collectively. For we do not have the faith to do so, but Jesus did. Jesus rebuked the elements and they obeyed him – “they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’” That puts us in our place, doesn’t it? Our faith is so measly that we don’t dare to act. Instead we chide our saviour into a miracle, something that shows how worthy he is for our respect and honour, how worthy he is of our worship.

Each of us understands the delicacy of life when we stand there alone in the silence of the whirlwind like Job, don’t we? That moment of clarity when we see our lives as that maelstrom of experience good and bad, those storms which surround us normally, which embrace us in a way that can crush us, if we do not have resilience, if we do not embrace our being thrown into life just as it is, just as Jesus was.

That storm into which we are cast can overwhelm us, just as the covid crisis has done in this past year. It is a storm which is not abating. This storm seems to extend beyond our capacity to cope, doesn’t it? With lockdown being extended so that we cannot do what we want to for another four weeks, we are assaulted yet again by an outrageous fortune which we must conquer for ourselves. We ask, when will this storm cease?

We panic on the seas of our troubles, don’t we? We have no faith in ourselves or our neighbours for help in our situation. We despair. This is the point of no return. We stand at a point where there is an abyss all around us and we must choose – we must choose to live.

I just mentioned Job. He is in precisely this situation of the maelstrom of troubles. – His life is in tatters, his family has all been killed off, his riches have been stripped away, even his health is being crushed with boils and pain. He is, we imagine, at that same point at which we stand in the midst of all our sufferings and anxiety. He stands in innocence and faith and chooses to live. Even his comforters cannot diminish his belief in his own innocence because they can not see how such suffering can come down on the pure and righteous.

The reading from Job talks of the whirlwind, that great maelstrom surrounding him – all of Shakespeare’s slings and arrows of outrageous fortune assaulting him in his faithful innocence. This turmoil is completely beyond the power of any individual to control. The psalm speaks of the storms on the sea. At the behest of God, they arise and the waves rise to heaven and dip so low into the earth. Only those who travel on the great waters know the real power of the storms which God calls into being. All of our readings today speak to the human condition, that thrown-ness of the individual into a world which is capricious – we are thrown into the environment of chance and change that has no intention of making anything normal for any of us.

“The wind goes where it will.” That is what we think. There is no human control over the stormy wind, is there? The wind comes and goes without any by your leave. Storms rage and quell of their own accord, how can we think we can do anything with the whirlwind?

We can make things less extreme. By moderating our behaviour, we may make the climate, our environment, less dangerous. If we were to live by the rule of Christ’s law, the winds of change will be a “gentle breeze” as Seals and Croft once sang. Perhaps the jasmine sweet will be in our lives as the Spirit enters our hearts, when we respond to the call of God, when we hear the rebuke in the silence at the centre of the whirlwind and finally act our love of our Lord God and neighbour.

Amen

Sunday, Trinity 3

Collect

Lord, you have taught us that all our doings without love are nothing worth: send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of love, the true bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whoever lives is counted dead before you. Grant this for your only Son Jesus Christ’s sake, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Faithful Creator, whose mercy never fails: deepen our faithfulness to you and to your living Word, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Loving Father, we thank you for feeding us at the supper of your Son: sustain us with your Spirit, that we may serve you here on earth until our joy is complete in heaven, and we share in the eternal banquet with Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

Thus says the Lord God:

    I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out.

    I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs;

    I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain.

    On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar.

    Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.

    All the trees of the field shall know
that I am the Lord.

    I bring low the high tree,
I make high the low tree;

    I dry up the green tree
and make the dry tree flourish.

    I the Lord have spoken;
I will accomplish it.

Ezekiel 17.22–24

Psalm

1    It is a good thing to give thanks to the Lord
and to sing praises to your name, O Most High;

2    To tell of your love early in the morning
and of your faithfulness in the night-time,

3     Upon the ten-stringed instrument, upon the harp,
and to the melody of the lyre.

4     For you, Lord, have made me glad by your acts,
and I sing aloud at the works of your hands.

12    The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree,
and shall spread abroad like a cedar of Lebanon.

13    Such as are planted in the house of the Lord
shall flourish in the courts of our God.

14    They shall still bear fruit in old age;
they shall be vigorous and in full leaf;

15    That they may show that the Lord is true;
he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.

Psalm 92.1–4,12–15*

Epistle

So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord – for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For all of us must appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.

[ Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.]

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

2 Corinthians 5.6–10 [11–13]14–17

Gospel

He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’

He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Mark 4.26–34



Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 3

Passages from the prophets excite me, especially when they are full of imagery I can understand. Particularly poignant are passages which liken the divine to gardening, or arboreal, services, as Ezekiel and Mark do today. Who would not feel some sympathy with a God who wants to create a paradise on “the mountain height of Israel”? After all, who does not understand the desire to shape the wilderness into a garden, by letting some trees fall by the wayside and bring others to full fruition? Who is not thrilled by the image of a great cedar as the purpose of the creator God, an image which takes on the meaning of God’s people shaped and cared for by a most solicitous gardener?

There are times in my job that I feel that inspiration, when I have been able to shape a garden so that plants will flourish and their owners feel a joy where they live. When I mow lawns,  I feel I am presenting gardens at their best, green and pleasant as the land in that great hymn.

Watching all the news programs and commentaries on the health of the nation during lock-down, it was apparent that people need green spaces around them for their sanity. This is a lesson which must penetrate the whole of our lives. We must plan to have that good space around us, not just survive in boxes without souls. Such an outlook makes my job so much more rewarding. I feel I have helped produce that new creation in the environment of my customers.

The imagery Ezekiel uses is similar to the language that Jesus uses in the lesson from Mark we read for today. Again we come to agriculture for our re-presentation of our ownmost selves. Ezekiel says God will plant his domain at the heart of Israel, in the heights. Jesus speaks more plainly with his parables, “The kingdom of God is like …” or “The kingdom of God is as if …”. A famous NT scholar wrote a book called The Parables of the Kingdom. It has been the resource for many a sermon and a text on which many a theologian has pondered, let alone been quizzed on when in training.

It is an important book because it took seriously the literary critical method of reading the gospels, and it propelled the discipline of “form criticism” which is the notion that we use formulae in speaking and writing which give our words certain implicit meanings.

A parable is a way of speaking about something by clothing it in different language conventions. Today we have heard about the kingdom hidden in the verbal garb of a field being sown with seed and its subsequent harvest. We have also heard about the kingdom through the image of the mustard seed and its maturation into a tree.

Parables are signs pointing to something else, like the signs which announce Slimbridge on the various roads in the area. They tell us about Slimbridge – where to turn and how far it is away, for instance – they are merely signs about Slimbridge perhaps causing us thoughtful anticipation of the real thing. Ezekiel and Jesus employ parabolic language.

When we speak of the garden of God, paradise or Eden, we paint a picture which limits us to its expression of a something else. A parable makes you think about the subject. Here we have to think about the Kingdom of God through the imagery of a field or the mustard seed. Ezekiel’s planting of a forest in our minds also forces us to think – maybe about how we can bring about this paradise of fruitful trees.

With this in mind, wouldn’t you say that language is the problem of life? We can say one thing and mean another. We can speak about this and really be talking about that. Or, for instance, we can talk of love and mean it completely. In other words, we can speak in a manner that ties our language with what and how we have experienced life. —

And in other situations, we can lie.

Why? Why do we pervert language in this way? Why do we hide things with our words which will ultimately be revealed? The hidden will be seen in the light of a final judgement of our lives, if not the divine, juridical sense, at least by our conscience.

Let’s leave this negative use of language for private discussion and personal reflection. —

Rather let’s address this question – How can we use language positively? How can language bolster our lives with speech? How can we help others in their times of need, when a good word would raise them to a height from which they could launch themselves into the productivity of goodness? We know this positive use of language is possible because it has happened to ourselves – don’t we know this deep down in our hearts? The kind, “Good morning – how nice to see you!” does go a long way to cheer us up, doesn’t it? When someone stops to hear how things are going, I know I feel a lot better. Those few minutes of positive use of language, that pleasant conversation when we are not in the best place, does everyone the world of good. The banal courtesies of the day can and should be elevated to engagement in the life of the people with whom we stand in conversation. In so doing, we raise language above the everyday, unconscious chattering of the crowd. It is not longer talk just about the weather. The weather can become that parabolic entry into life when people converse with intent.

Prophets and poets use language in ways that are very different to ordinary, everyday expression. These writers are poetic in their use of imagery, some are prophetic, calling on the conscience of each individual to stop inhumanity and focus on the divine in life.

Through language we can transform our ordinary lives into an extraordinary lived experience, the Existence which the philosopher exhorts all people to embrace, and, in the words of the theologian, the full life Jesus offers to all who believe in Him, the word of God incarnate. It is possible that the power of our simple words can save the world, if only we would speak in truth.

Perhaps we should start thinking parabolically and so transform everything we say into a new language. I think we should try to acquire that new speech. I wonder whether George Orwell was hinting at this in his book 1984 – that spoken words are so very powerful – to bless or to curse as the bible says. Perhaps we can speak in a new way, a way that will reveal the kingdom in our spoken parabolic lives just as Jesus did.

Amen

Sunday, Trinity 2

Collect

O God, the strength of all those who put their trust in you, mercifully accept our prayers and, because through the weakness of our mortal nature we can do no good thing without you, grant us the help of your grace, that in the keeping of your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

God of truth, help us to keep your law of love and to walk in ways of wisdom, that we may find true life in Jesus Christ your Son.

Post Communion

Eternal Father, we thank you for nourishing us with these heavenly gifts: may our communion strengthen us in faith, build us up in hope, and make us grow in love; for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.’ Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent tricked me, and I ate.’ The Lord God said to the serpent,

    ‘Because you have done this,
cursed are you among all animals
and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.

    I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.’

Genesis 3.8–15

Psalm

1    Out of the depths have I cried to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice;
let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.

2    If you, Lord, were to mark what is done amiss,
O Lord, who could stand?

3    But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you shall be feared.

4    I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him;
in his word is my hope.

5    My soul waits for the Lord, more than the night watch for the morning,
more than the night watch for the morning.

6    O Israel, wait for the Lord,
for with the Lord there is mercy;

7    With him is plenteous redemption
and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.

Psalm 130

Epistle

But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture – ‘I believed, and so I spoke’ – we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

2 Corinthians 4.13 – 5.1

Gospel

… and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’ And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’ – for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’

Mark 3: 27–35

Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 2

Do you think Jesus was out of his mind? – Well, that is what they were saying about him. Why did Jesus’ family want to restrain him? Why did they want to, as we would say, “put him away”? Would he be like the person in the attic in so many gothic horror stories – mad and kept incommunicado, away from all possible contact from anyone else? They (you know, that crowd we thought about last week) were all saying that Jesus was out of his mind. Why did they say he was mad?

Don’t you think this is a rather odd way to start a reading from the gospel in our worship today? The snippet from the gospel does not tell us anything about this judgement. Was it the crowd gathered around him, so many that food was scarce and no one could eat? Did that crowd drive him mad? We thought about the crowd last week, didn’t we? We considered peer pressure, that “keeping up appearances” which everyone feels. We should consider the notion of “received wisdom” of old wive’s tales, and we all know how accurate those are, don’t we!

“People were saying, ‘he has gone out of his mind.’” Who were those people? They are part of the baying crowd all around, that crowd which was making it impossible to eat. That crowd pressing in on Jesus as he went about his mission.

I think this is a very odd beginning to a reading from a Sunday gospel. Let’s see if we can understand this a little better. What has happened up to this point in this chapter of the gospel of Mark? Our lesson today is at the end of the third chapter. What happened at the beginning of the chapter? To begin with Jesus heals the man with the withered hand, then so many people had gathered around that he had to take refuge in a boat, “that he would not be crushed”. People came to him, it seems, because his fame for preaching and healing had become generally known. Next in the chapter is the appointment of the disciples who were to be with him. All twelve are named and called apostles. They were to “join” Jesus in the preaching and healing of Israel, the people of God. Jesus was going to send them on their own individual missions after they had joined him.

Is that the reason Jesus was called “mad” – because he was a peripatetic who preached in synagogues to which he did not belong and healed people with whom he had no connection? The life of a wanderer is not the Jewish style of living at that time. The Jews were “home bodies” – they were born, lived and died in the same village usually, much the same as most people around the world. The “wandering charismatic” was an oddity at that time. Like Jesus, they would have no home, unlike even the birds and the foxes which had their own nests. The Son of Man, Jesus Christ, and his disciples would have no place of their own. They would wander in their ministry, preaching and healing as they could. These Jewish travellers would talk about the coming of the Kingdom to an expectant Israel. They would build on the Messianic hope about that Kingdom of God just about to burst  into life in the very next moment. Paul the apostle had this same fervour and hope, and he was another wanderer. These people were not ordinary amongst the population, either in Judea or Rome, Egypt or Britain.

These wandering Jews are not absolutely strange in Israel. Many left home to sit at the feet of a famous rabbi, although they did not belong in that particular community. It is the sort of thing that still happens in the Hasidic community – around the “rebbe” gathers a group of students  – they arrive because of his reputation. We might even see this Jewish “school” tradition realised here in the gospel reading for today. In the period of the gospel, these students would go to learn from the wise man and return home to enrich their own communities. They would become disciples of the rabbi and might even one day become the leader in their local congregation. Sometimes, they would find a new home and live there.

The church does this when it educates men and women to become priests. They often go away for years and then return to a local congregation to lead it. Sometimes priests are plucked from local churches for this time of training and then they are placed in their home churches again.

So we might say nothing has really changed, but we don’t call our priests mad, do we? Well, let’s leave that as a rhetorical question and move back to the wandering charismatics in the hellenistic period.

Were they seen to be mad? I suppose they might have been, just like those shepherds in the nativity story. They were all displaced people and they are very difficult to deal with, aren’t they?

‘Madness’ – the charge levelled at Jesus and his disciples, even disciples of today – is a social judgement on the stranger, and what is more strange than a fellow walking about the countryside preaching about the Kingdom of God with such power that many come to be partial to his message. Imagine such a madman having the reputation of the power to heal from all maladies, the blind, the lame, and even the mad had all been touched by this miracle worker, this preacher without fixed abode.

This is the significance of the statement, “‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” People who were adjudged mad must be under the power of a spirit which is so very different to spirit of the normal population. Beelzebul was the origin of this madness according to the thought of the time. If Jesus was able to drive out demons, then he must have the power of this demon. Jesus counters their argument, doesn’t he?

But what of the relation to his family, who wanted to restrain him – from what? we have to ask, his preaching, his healing, his teaching, his wandering the countryside with those strange men whom he called apostles and disciples? His family must accept that Jesus is mad, to want to restrain him. “Your mother and siblings are outside, don’t you want to see them?” Jesus asks, “Who are my family?” Jesus does not recognise family ties, and so in the usual sense he is not right in the head according to the crowd crushing in on him. Rather, I would think Jesus considers the silenced crowd as his family, those who had no expectation, but trusted his words in silence. This quiet crowd has no wish to restrain or push him. This crowd just wants to listen to him – to be with him in the genuine way friends sit with each other. There are no expectations or demands, no judgements whatsoever. They are not the crowd who at first says, “This man is mad.” I think this is the madness we should all aspire to, to preach about the coming kingdom and heal people in their time of direst need, when they wish to be silent in themselves just as we usually do.

Amen

Trinity

Collect

Almighty and everlasting God, you have given us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity and in the power of the divine majesty to worship the Unity: keep us steadfast in this faith, that we may evermore be defended from all adversities; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Holy God, faithful and unchanging: enlarge our minds with the knowledge of your truth, and draw us more deeply into the mystery of your love, that we may truly worship you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion

Almighty and eternal God, you have revealed yourself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and live and reign in the perfect unity of love: hold us firm in this faith, that we may know you in all your ways and evermore rejoice in your eternal glory, who are three Persons yet one God, now and for ever.

Readings

Old Testament

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

    ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’

Isaiah 6.1–8

Psalm

1    Ascribe to the Lord, you powers of heaven,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.

2    Ascribe to the Lord the honour due to his name;
worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

3    The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders;
the Lord is upon the mighty waters.

4    The voice of the Lord is mighty in operation;
the voice of the Lord is a glorious voice.

5    The voice of the Lord breaks the cedar trees;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon;

6    He makes Lebanon skip like a calf
and Sirion like a young wild ox.

7    The voice of the Lord splits the flash of lightning; the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

8    The voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forests bare;
in his temple all cry, ‘Glory!’

9    The Lord sits enthroned above the water flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king for evermore.

10    The Lord shall give strength to his people;
the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.

Psalm

Epistle

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh – for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Romans 8.12–17

Gospel

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

John 3.1–17

Sermon on Trinity Sunday

    The voice of the Lord splits the flash of lightning; the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

    The voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forests bare;
in his temple all cry, ‘Glory!’

Today we hear about the voice of the Lord and its power – it can split the flash of lightning, it can shake the desolate places of the world and it can strip forests bare. Yet there are other voices we can hear as well – those voices in the temple which cry, “Glory!” and Cherubim and Seraphim add their cries of “Holy! Holy! Holy!”, then there are our own voices which cry, “Abba, Father!” amidst the din of heaven.

Imagine the power of all of those voices sounding together in the vaults of heaven, resounding in the wildernesses of earth, echoing in our homes, and finally in our hearts. What a glorious noise that is!

But I wonder: do we ever hear the sound of heaven and earth resounding together? Do we listen for the voice of the Lord? Do we listen for the angels or the saints singing their praise of the God we worship? Have we opened up our ears for the sounds of glory and power which echo in eternity?

Some time ago someone set up a number of radios in a church which were tuned into different stations to show how many sounds are all around us. Sounds we don’t hear and I don’t think we have any idea that they are there at all. But it is all there, like the booming brass and tinkling cymbals celebrated in the psalms, or the boom boxes of the streets, or the television blasting away in the corner of the room. Nowadays everyone is plugged into their private music with their ear buds. As they run along on their exercise runs or make their way to the next important thing on their list, the beat sounds in their ears taking them away from everything except their exercise, everything except themselves perhaps.

Let’s take this change from the public noise of the ghetto blaster to the annoying scratching of ear buds as a good sign, that people are more attuned to listen to the beat of a different drummer. Perhaps there is a chance that God might play a greater part in people’s lives than appears to be the case today. It may be that the voice of the Lord, or the cherubim and seraphim, or the saints, will penetrate the isolation we have had to endure over the last year and a half.

However, I think we should ask a more prosaic question – do we ever listen out for the other person as they cry out in their joy? Do we ever hear others as they whimper in despair? Do we only hear our own wishes and the baying of our own crowd, that crowd that overwhelms us as we fail to do the right thing?

That crowd is not the famous “crowd of witnesses” from Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, that holy crowd which should comfort us in our desperate times and which rejoices with us in our happiness – no, the crowd we are talking about here is the one that makes up a mob, those gangs which allow people to do despicable things. We have considered this dubious crowd before, haven’t we? We have talked about the crowd which eggs on the bully in the schoolyard, the crowd which creates “peer pressure” to oppress everyone, that crowd to which we give in all to often. We might even see it as the crowd of the “politically correct”.

No one can name any one person in a crowd, can they? There is no
one

responsible for the acts of the crowd – we say, “they did it”. Or as the woman said about that red dress, “The devil made me do it.”

We need to stand apart from every crowd, whether the crowd is in heaven or not. We have to choose for ourselves where we stand. I want to say that we must stand on our faith, independent from all, looking to the heart of life, staring at that abyss where we God dwells. When we stand in faith we are protected from the dubious crowd. When we stand in faith, we can stand on our own. I hope when we are standing alone we can hear the crowd of heaven, those witnesses to the truth of God, that glorious crowd of witnesses gathered around God, the crowd of disciples gathered around Jesus when he ministered to mankind, and the crowd of women which stood at the foot of the cross, when stain of sin was expunged and the crowd of witnesses which finally stood in the upper room when they understood the reality of the risen Christ. I hope when we stand alone we can hear the solo voice of every other person, that whatever they are saying in their very own selves becomes a message to us, a message upon which we will act. Let us be those radios tuned into all the different stations to show our listening and hearing of all the voices.

When we stand in faith, we stand alone to listen and hear. At the same time we are crying out with our own experiences, in our joy and in our sorrow. What will people hear when they listen to us?

Do we ever cry out, “Glory”, or “Holy! Holy! Holy!” or “Abba, Father” in times of joy or do we only cry out to God in despair? Do we ever place ourselves in the place where all attention is elsewhere – on the Lord God of Sabaoth whose heaven and earth is full of his own glory, that glory which should remind us of the Creator of all joy. Are our cries the woes of Job in his desolate pain as his faith is tested? Do we curse God because our wishes are not fulfilled? Do we stand alone as Job did among his dubious comforters firm in our faith in our God despite the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, ending them because of our faith? Or do we see ourselves clearly like Isaiah who declares,

‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’

Are we about to abase ourselves at the altar in the temple, hiding our eyes like the Seraphim? Are we about to open our eyes to see our King of kings and Lord of lords? Are we listening to the chorus of creation as it shouts out its life?

In the Orthodox Church everyone present participates as the choir. We can sing with abandon the songs of the church as we worship our God, three in one and one in three, as we do today, Trinity Sunday.

We must let our voices speak in various ways. All those radios should remind us that there is a symphony ‘round about us. We must join the choir of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, earthly and heavenly. But how can we compete with the power of the cherubim and seraphim in chorus, or the sanctity of the holy fathers and saintly mothers, or those of blessed memory who have passed before? We should raise our voices, nonetheless, perhaps with a humble ‘Abba, Father’ as our contribution to the glorious noise of the heavenly spheres echoing here on earth. We need to fill out the OMG of social media with the full statement. I think we have to say “Oh My God!” and mean it just as Isaiah did.

Amen

Easter 7, Sunday after Ascension

Collect

O God the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: we beseech you, leave us not comfortless, but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us and exalt us to the place where our Saviour Christ is gone before, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Risen, ascended Lord, as we rejoice at your triumph, fill your Church on earth with power and compassion, that all who are estranged by sin may find forgiveness and know your peace, to the glory of God the Father.

Post Communion

Eternal God, giver of love and power, your Son Jesus Christ has sent us into all the world to preach the gospel of his kingdom: confirm us in this mission, and help us to live the good news we proclaim; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

First Reading

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred and twenty people) and said, ‘Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus – for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.’

So one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.’ So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’ And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

Acts 1.15-17,21-26

Psalm

1    Blessed are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,
nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the assembly of the scornful.

2    Their delight is in the law of the Lord
and they meditate on his law day and night.

3    Like a tree planted by streams of water bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither,
whatever they do, it shall prosper.

4    As for the wicked, it is not so with them;
they are like chaff which the wind blows away.

5    Therefore the wicked shall not be able to stand in the judgement,
nor the sinner in the congregation of the righteous.

6    For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked shall perish.

Psalm 1

Epistle

If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.

1 John 5.9–13

Gospel

‘I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

John 17.6-19



Sermon on Sunday, Easter 7

Casting lots … We all know what casting lots means, don’t we? It often means just making a decision arbitrarily. However, there is also another, more sinister meaning which is part of this notion. When the die is cast, everything is taken out of our hands and the decision follows a trajectory all of its own along a path which cannot be altered. I think we all understand this – the notion of fate taking charge of one’s very own life. When the die is cast, we have to accept it. We can do nothing else except to live with it.

But is this really what we believe about life? As christians, don’t we have something to say about our fate? Surely the early church believed (and still does believe) very differently from the society around it. There is even a famous Briton theologian in the early Church who believed adamantly in the free will of human being – he went so far as to say that one can even will one’s own salvation. Unfortunately, he was declared a heretic and thrown out of the church.

This notion of free will is totally the opposite of what many in the Roman Empire understood about destiny. People believed they were locked into the skein of time woven by the fates, a bondage so complete that they could do nothing about their lives.

The one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church stood between these polar opposites. The Church said humanity did have free will which it must exercise with a good heart, and yet that heart would have to turn to God and through faith attain salvation.

There are many shades to this argument, but let’s consider the black and the white of it. Either there is determinism or there is free will. These two extremes of human agency are still available today, don’t you think? I would suggest that lock-down has given us a flavour of both ends of the continuum.  The protests throughout the world against lock-down and the fact that so many remain isolated at home unwilling to associate in any way with others, I believe, are the evidence. So we can understand how in the ancient world these two ways of thinking about one’s own self in the world come about, because we are feeling the same today.

Our short passage from Acts today points to the very precarious place the early Church found itself. We have the eleven deciding on the basis of prayer and casting lots to see how their number can be perfected again, to return to twelve. They had found two men, but how to decide between them? That was the question.

Well society, that faceless crowd, gave them the answer – “Cast lots!” it said, “we all know that way, don’t we?” Well, that course was partly taken, for the eleven believed that God’s will would be revealed somehow through the lots. But it was not the lots alone which determined the twelfth man. The two men were of quality. God’s will must have something to do with their hearts and here we come to see how the ancient world was changing. When I was at school, the notion of the “paradigm shift” gained popularity and my teacher used it to portray this change of attitude.

Do we have our own will to do what is right? Can we choose the good as the philosopher suggests we should do? Or is everything locked in and we can make no decisions at all, that everything just happens on its own – or if we make any decisions they are arbitrary and there is no responsibility attached to them. Here we are today. We don’t really believe that, do we? No, the notion of free will and responsible action belong to us and we act as such, don’t we? Well, I certainly hope I do, but in lock-down I began to doubt my own agency, my own capacity for decision and action.

In our reading we have the old order of the fates paraded before us in the form of casting lots and predictive prophecy. Somehow in the early christian community, the notion of this arbitrary control is at work and I believe we can see this sort of thinking in our own lives.

That notion of a controlling fate has not gone away, has it? Today we know that feeling – we have experienced it, more or less, in the current lock-down conditions. All the rhetoric surrounding lock-down sounds like the sort of railing against destiny which has come down through history. The bitter complaints against the rules and regulations which impinge on our freedom are not unlike the resentment people have always felt against fate.

What we should examine is the shift from the fates to faith in our story from Acts. I think the paradigm shift is to be seen here. In our story we have the casting of lots, and that reveals this ancient thread of fortune and destiny – the route on which a person journeys without any chance of change. When the dice are thrown it only reveals what is “written in the stars”.

But our reading injects a second thread into this notion of destiny, destroying its hold over humanity. We are to pray to God, to open ourselves to the one who knows our very hearts. Now that our hearts are our own – we do not belong to the fates – our fates belong to each one of us. There is no external control over the heart except as it beats in us. We are, after all, our hearts and they connect us with God, our God of the miraculous.

I would like to make a rather outlandish suggestion as to the meaning of the lots cast here. I don’t think the eleven could make up their minds as to which of the two men they wanted to take that twelfth place. No one wanted to be responsible for such a grave decision, so they fell back onto that ancient and arbitrary method. The eleven placed the decision out there in the midst of the world, not in their own hands. They played on the cultural acceptance of the auspices and the reader of signs. They revealed the will of God not because they could read the hearts of men, but through the arbitrary method of casting lots. This episode shows how the early church was tied into its culture, a culture in which a certain type of superstition abounded. We could find examples of this belief in our own times without a doubt. However, I want to make the point that this story shows how the minds of people were being changed. Although they used the cultural artefact of lots, it did not control the event. Rather, they had discerned two worthy candidates and the decision had to be made – somehow.

Living free is the gift of christianity to the world, the freedom of the Spirit, the freedom of a life ascending to God. We have the example of Jesus Christ to light the way and we have the Feast of the Ascension to remind us that we can overcome the world to live at the right hand of God.

Amen

Easter 5

Collect

Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ have overcome death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: grant that, as by your grace going before us you put into our minds good desires, so by your continual help we may bring them to good effect; through Jesus Christ our risen Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Risen Christ, your wounds declare your love for the world and the wonder of your risen life: give us compassion and courage to risk ourselves for those we serve, to the glory of God the Father.

Post Communion

Eternal God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life: grant us to walk in his way, to rejoice in his truth, and to share his risen life; who is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

Readings

Acts

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

    ‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.

    In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.’

The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

Acts 8:26-40

Psalm

25    From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
I will perform my vows in the presence of those that fear you.

26    The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek the Lord shall praise him; their hearts shall live for ever.

27    All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations shall bow before him.

28    For the kingdom is the Lord’s
and he rules over the nations.

29    How can those who sleep in the earth bow down in worship,
or those who go down to the dust kneel before him?

30    He has saved my life for himself; my descendants shall serve him;
this shall be told of the Lord for generations to come.

31    They shall come and make known his salvation, to a people yet unborn,
declaring that he, the Lord, has done it.

Psalm 22

Epistle

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Saviour of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

1 John 4:7-21

Gospel

‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

John 15:1-8

Sermon on Sunday, Easter 5

Does anyone remember the television programme, “Due South”? It was about a Canadian Mountie in Chicago, how everything was going wrong for him, but the Canadian did not give up on good manners and gracious behaviour toward everyone he met. Even the bad guys are disarmed by his kindness. It is a wonderful tale. I think we should see the Acts reading through the prism of this saying, “going south”. Let’s hope we can go south like the mountie, listening and talking with all people we meet however they are.

Philip had to take “the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.).” He had to head south. But going south means that things have gone wrong, doesn’t it? (At least that is what the expression means to us today.) So, who wants to take a wilderness road? Don’t we all want to travel on the high road? Don’t we all want to be in the middle of the city, with its bright lights and entertainment? Don’t we want to be in the midst of the great crowd which distracts us from the south? When we are gathered together in those crowds, do we really want to go to those lonely, desert places? Do we really want to head south?

These are not as wild questions as you might think on the face of it. Haven’t we been in the desert because of lockdown? Don’t we want “to get back to normal”? This is the cry of everyone, isn’t it? Our leaders have been saying this for over a year, chafing at the bit of isolation.

I am convinced that we have not learned anything from lockdown. Too many are wishing to give up thinking for themselves and let the crowd do the work for them again. It is peer pressure on a grand scale. But perhaps it is a more subtle phenomenon than I am suggesting. The crowd, after all, does inform each individual’s course of action in life, either as something to go along with or to react against (or maybe some combination of these two opposite tendencies). After all, don’t we feel comfortable in a crowd? Don’t we become a part of that mass quite happily and cease to be our very vulnerable selves? There is an empowerment when we become part of the crowd – at the same time as we give up our autonomy.

That crowd is not to be found in desert places. In the wilderness we have to make do for ourselves, for we are alone and it is very clear to me that we might be in need of help, just like that Ethiopian court official.

We have all been on that road south, haven’t we? We find ourselves on that road when we are isolated and feeling abandoned, and for many lockdown brought this feeling to the front of their minds. Perhaps we have been on that road for a long time. If we have been lucky, we have been on that road and not felt oppressed or depressed by the journey. When we are on the road south, that is precisely when we want to discover a friend, when we want someone like Philip to appear so that we can discuss those very hard questions that seem to have no answer. We want someone to talk with about those matters which have to do with the fundamentals of life.

But why don’t we speak with people with the fervour of Philip? If we were as enthusiastic as that travelling disciple, perhaps someone might ask us the same question the Ethiopian courtier asked Philip, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ and we should be delighted to oblige. But apart from our showing enthusiasm, Philip also is an example that we should be very good listeners, hearing the questions people really have on their minds.

“The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’”

The Ethiopian was confused about his reading in Isaiah. Who wouldn’t be, then or now? Who is this lamb who stood silent before the shearer and butcher? Who would remain so quiet in his humiliation when no justice would be given?

We all have our own confusion when we are heading south – even if we are in the midst of a crowd. Don’t we see things on that road that do not make any sense to us? Don’t we require some sort of angel to reveal the true course of life to us?

The usual state of affairs is that everyone is pointed to the crowd and the crowd’s non-expectation of the good. Don’t we say, “That is the way it has always been. We can’t change it.”? With that opinion ringing in our ears, we give up our search for what is right. It seems doing the right thing is not what anyone wants to do – that everyone is expected to be absorbed into the crowd, into themselves, and do nothing. The siren call of the crowd, what “they” say, overcomes each one of us and we are put to sleep in that cocoon.

However, the philosopher has always exhorted us to the good as an ideal reality. And the way to the good is not amongst the herd, but rather it is when we hear when conscience calls in that dark night. No one else except the individual alone can hear that call, but we must listen for that, not the call of the crowd.

That brings us back to our reading from Acts. The court official has heard something in the book to hand, but he cannot make sense of it. Then Philip appears and talks with him.

Philip does not badger – he just recounts the saving history to the Ethiopian as he knows it. I think we need to learn the lesson Philip is teaching here.

He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.

Philip wants to know what the eunuch understands about the passage, he wants to share what he himself understands as well. This is a dialogue, a true interchange of thought between two people. The result of Philip’s hearing the confusion of the Ethiopian and the Ethiopian’s willingness to be guided in the story, is a true joy, a joy that results in the impromptu baptism at some random water on that road through the wilderness as they travelled south.

“Going south” – I wonder what that means to you. Does “going south” in our reading signify the awful state of affairs which our modern expression means? No, I think going south is an opportunity to show the love of one another which the epistle of John tells us about, that love that reveals God in the world – a love that is not normally revealed in everyday life, in the everyday of the crowd. Love lets us spend time with someone on that road south, just as Philip travelled a little along the way with the Ethiopian back to Queen Candace’s court.

Amen

Easter 4

Collect

Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life: raise us, who trust in him, from the death of sin to the life of righteousness, that we may seek those things which are above, where he reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Risen Christ, faithful shepherd of your Father’s sheep: teach us to hear your voice and to follow your command, that all your people may be gathered into one flock, to the glory of God the Father.

Post Communion

Merciful Father, you gave your Son Jesus Christ to be the good shepherd, and in his love for us to lay down his life and rise again: keep us always under his protection, and give us grace to follow in his steps; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

The Reading from Acts

The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’ Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is

    “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.”

There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’

Acts 4:5-12

Psalm

1    The Lord is my shepherd;
therefore can I lack nothing.

2    He makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.

3    He shall refresh my soul
and guide me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

4    Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

5    You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;
you have anointed my head with oil and my cup shall be full.

6    Surely goodness and loving mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Psalm

Epistle

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

1 John 3:16-24

Gospel

‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’

John 10:11-18

Sermon on Sunday, Easter 4

non sibi sed aliis

The other day a seventeen-year-old boy was stabbed and killed in the next village. How could this happen in a sleepy Gloucestershire village? Why would anyone do this? That was the question everyone was asking – why indeed? It is exactly the opposite action to what we expect love to take. That love we ascribe to God and especially in the person of Jesus Christ.

As christians, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” This clearly did not happen near Slimbridge the other day. That love of Christ is absolutely different to the action of the youths who took that youngster’s life.

This christian  love – the agape we hold so dear – should call into question so much of our ordinary lives – and even some of the extraordinary moments in our very mundane lives, especially that random act of violence which killed that boy. We are called to account, individually and as a society, aren’t we? How often do we act in the way of love Jesus showed us? – How often are we willing to sacrifice our own selves for the sake of  another person – to give that person life? The military, the police and our firemen – these emergency services all know that their vocations mean they are the people running towards danger for others as their duty, but who among us would do so? – Who would readily give up their own ambitions and hopes in order to let the other person live?

I know that I am utterly selfish, all I have ever  given up is my time to prepare these little addresses to offer to you. – And yet the question remains before me: Am I willing to place my life on the line for someone else? I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. I have never been so challenged. Naturally, I have to ask myself, “Do I know love at all, especially that love evidenced by the ultimate sacrifice – my life for another? That love of a shepherd?”

Although my life is selfish when compared to the act of loving sacrifice of Jesus Christ, I have never – as far as I know – taken life away from another. I may have blighted someone’s life through ignorance or delusion, but I have never consciously stripped away a life. I have never plunged the knife in, figuratively or literally. This knife is a symbol of our contemporary selfishness, the fact that a person can wield it, rather than setting themselves as the target of the thrust instead of another. I have to say that that ultimate taking, can not be part of a christian’s life. Rather, the essence of our lives must be the giving to others, the generosity of spirit which derives from love. We may not be the heroic soldier of the cross who is a martyr for the sake of another’s life because of our love, but we, I hope, have given time and effort on behalf of others. And I hope we are still willing to offer something of our selves, despite our limited successes, for those around us.

That death in the neighbourhood has stopped me in my tracks and now the guilty verdict handed over on the former policeman, Derek Chauvin, should give everyone pause. The protests last year to say that Black Lives Matter and everything right up to this judgement should still be part of our consciousness. We should always remember that life matters and I have to ask, “Isn’t that what the Bishop’s LIFE initiative is all about? – the enabling of people to live well.”

This verdict points everyone towards the duty of care, our responsibility, for the other, whoever they are. After all, we are our brother’s keeper, aren’t we. At least that is what the story of Cain and Abel tells me. We can also see this biblical story as appropriate to today. Cain is the farmer and Abel the shepherd. They both produce sacrifices to God from their bounty. But Cain killed Abel, didn’t he? Like that stabbing across the river, we wonder, Why? Freud and the psychoanalysts would have one explanation, Levi-Strauss and the anthropologists would have another, the police and criminologists would give another set of reasons – in other words, everyone will explain it away as they reduce it to one reason or another. Perhaps they are all right. One person will kill another if there is something fundamentally wrong in the relationship, something out of kilter in their world. Cain and Abel were the children of Adam and Eve, what could they possibly have happened to sour their relationship? They were the first children in the world. What could be wrong between them?

Cain and Abel did not have the distractions of modern-day life to confuse them. The advertising and the diversion of attention from the essentials of life – which I would call the love of God and neighbour – were not part of their lives, but still something went wrong between them. The knife came out and a life was taken, just like that young life taken last week.

All of that is so completely different from the life of the shepherd. The shepherd is focussed on the other, not on him- – or her- – self. So focussed on the other that self is lost, figuratively and in fact. The shepherd will face the wild beasts in order to keep the flock safe. Do we do the same for the crowd around us?

We all know the saying from John about the shepherd. I think it is a challenging saying. The gospel of John, as a scholar of the last century says, makes uncomfortable reading for everyone. Jesus confronts the everyday self, the one where we gladly just go along with what the crowd want.

Jesus always challenges this state of affairs. He does not want us to rely on others to tell us what we want to do. We must rely on our very own selves to determine what should be done. This fundamental choice is based on being with others in that radical way of the shepherd.

Jesus has given us a model for behaviour – I would say that he speaks of the shepherd as perfect humanity. Sacrificial love for the other is the only way to live, for it gives life to others, just as Jesus promises and Bishop Rachel exhorts us in the LIFE initiative.

A shepherd would have saved that young boy had one been on that main street last week. A shepherd would have stepped in front of that knife. Sadly, I only saw all the emergency vehicles rushing by me to the incident. I was in the wrong place. I could not have shepherded all those boys, and so I feel guilty. My conscience guides me to acts of sacrifice, just as I am sure yours does.

I would have us all pray to become that person willing to give life to, and for, others, through altruism, not for our own sake but the the sake of others.

Amen

Sunday, Easter 3

Collect

Almighty Father, who in your great mercy gladdened the disciples with the sight of the risen Lord: give us such knowledge of his presence with us, that we may be strengthened and sustained by his risen life and serve you continually in righteousness and truth; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Risen Christ, you filled your disciples with boldness and fresh hope: strengthen us to proclaim your risen life and fill us with your peace, to the glory of God the Father.

Post Communion

Living God, your Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: open the eyes of our faith, that we may see him in all his redeeming work; who is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

Readings

Reading from Acts

When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, ‘You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.

‘And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.

Acts 3.12-19

Psalm

1    Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness;
you set me at liberty when I was in trouble;
have mercy on me and hear my prayer.

2    How long will you nobles dishonour my glory;
how long will you love vain things and seek after falsehood?

3    But know that the Lord has shown me his marvellous kindness;
when I call upon the Lord, he will hear me.

4    Stand in awe, and sin not;
commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still.

5    Offer the sacrifices of righteousness
and put your trust in the Lord.

6    There are many that say, ‘Who will show us any good?’
Lord, lift up the light of your countenance upon us.

7    You have put gladness in my heart,
more than when their corn and wine and oil increase.

8    In peace I will lie down and sleep,
for it is you Lord, only, who make me dwell in safety.

Psalm 4

Epistle

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

I John 3.1-7

Gospel

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.’

Luke 24.36b–48

Sermon on Sunday, Easter 3

It was after the crucifixion when “Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified …” Why??? Why were the disciples startled and terrified? They must have thought, ‘There is a ghost standing among us!’ But was it really a ghost amongst them? No, it was Jesus himself there. The disciples could not understand it. So naturally, they must have been startled and terrified. They saw their Rabbi, their Lord, in their midst, even though just a few days before they saw him hoisted up on a cross, pierced and taken down from that device of torture. Their Master’s body had been placed in the tomb and it had been guarded by soldiers. He had breathed his last. They knew he had died. His body was put away. They never expected to see Jesus Christ among them again. But there he was, standing in front of them all!

It is no wonder that they were startled – it makes sense to us that they were terrified. After all, Jesus standing there would never have been anticipated by us or any of these people who had followed Jesus in his ministry, those who stood by at the crucifixion and wept at his entombment.

Jesus “said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself.…’” Naturally fear and trembling were what the disciples felt. Jesus understood that, but what must have disturbed him was the doubt – their un-faith – arising in their hearts. Why did they doubt the resurrection of their Lord? Why did they doubt when he was in their midst inviting them to touch his hands and his side? — Un-faith – that is the real enemy. Naturally, we should fear in the presence of the Lord, but we should be faithful. To doubt any faithfulness – that is not acceptable when the Lord stands in front of us. However, that certainty of juridical evidence, which we understand as proof, is possible only for the disciples. Isn’t that exactly what Jesus said to Thomas who wanted to probe the risen body of Jesus with his fingers? Isn’t that what we take to be the case today? Don’t we want to probe the resurrected body so that we can say we have the evidence which will stand up in any court of the land? Evidence which will convince any sceptic or cynic, any one of our contemporaries.

The perception of faith, however – the seeing of
the evidence of faith
– is what Jesus is demanding from us. He understands the doubting of modern humanity, with all its distractions and inhumanity towards one another. Who would not doubt, especially when lockdown has just ended and we can go to all those non-essential shops to continue to distract ourselves from the fundamental fear we should have in the face of the holy?

That fundamental fear is not the “fright” which the disciples had when Jesus stood in their midst. This profound fear we experience is an existential state of mind. That fear and trembling gives rise to life in all its fullness. The presence of Jesus in our midst should give rise to this religious fear. This fear opens us to the world around us in awe – that is, in faith. In such a state of mind, we have joy in the whole of life.

Peter asks a penetrating question at the miracle wrought at Jerusalem after the resurrection appearances, “Why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us?” Peter is asking us to fear the might of God in our lives, when we see something we cannot prove as Perry Mason does in the courtroom. Peter compels us to consider the power of Jesus here and now to render us whole, in spite of our broken nature, in spite of the fact that we wish to have an unproven miracle in our lives. We must open our eyes to the miraculous all around us in order to benefit from that moment of conversion, when we step from a wholly profane life to a sacred existence in which we can experience the profound joy which loving God and our neighbour delivers. Love is at the heart live in all its fullness, of faith – that open and that “naive” attitude which accepts all as they are.

Loving faithfulness has been at the front of our minds lately, hasn’t it? The death of the Duke of Edinburgh has highlighted how loving faithfulness can be expressed in life. His story has been told on all the media, so I need not say more. I just want to remember Prince Philip as he stood in his loyal faithfulness for almost a century, standing a step behind our head of state and leader of the Anglican Church. I hope we all can do the same – that we will be loyal and faithful to the end with family, friends and neighbours, standing with them in every circumstance of life.

Amen

Easter

Collect

Almighty God, who through thine only-begotten Son Jesus Christ hast overcome death, and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life: We humbly beseech thee, that as by thy special grace preventing us thou dost put into our minds good desires, so by thy continual help we may bring the same to good effect; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end.

or

God of glory, by the raising of your Son you have broken the chains of death and hell: fill your Church with faith and hope; for a new day has dawned and the way to life stands open in our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Post Communion

God of Life, who for our redemption gave your only-begotten Son to the death of the cross, and by his glorious resurrection have delivered us from the power of our enemy: grant us so to die daily to sin, that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his risen life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

First Reading

Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’

Acts 10.34-43

Psalm

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;

   his steadfast love endures for ever!

Let Israel say,

   ‘His steadfast love endures for ever.’

The Lord is my strength and my might;

   he has become my salvation.

There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous:

‘The right hand of the Lord does valiantly;

   the right hand of the Lord is exalted;

   the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.’

I shall not die, but I shall live,

   and recount the deeds of the Lord.

The Lord has punished me severely,

   but he did not give me over to death.

Open to me the gates of righteousness,

   that I may enter through them

   and give thanks to the Lord.

This is the gate of the Lord;

   the righteous shall enter through it.

I thank you that you have answered me

   and have become my salvation.

The stone that the builders rejected

   has become the chief cornerstone.

This is the Lord’s doing;

   it is marvellous in our eyes.

This is the day that the Lord has made;

   let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Psalm 118.1-2,14-24

Epistle

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

1 Corinthians 15.19-26

Gospel

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

John 20.1-18

Sermon on Easter

‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.’

Don’t you think that Easter is the day we should really understand what Peter meant by these words? Let’s take this apart and try to comprehend just what the implications are for us today.

The question Peter addresses is this – Who is acceptable to God? Peter gives us an answer in two parts. The first part is obvious – Anyone who “does what is right” is something we can all accept as true.

We can all understand this, can’t we? Morally and ethically right action is acceptable to everyone. Whoever does what is right must be acceptable to everyone. Even a politician who takes the moral high ground as his point of orientation is applauded. It is not about the laws passed that commends our lawmakers, but the quality of individual decisions they make in their lives which are reflected in their words, public and private, in government and at home. These decisions, whether hard or easy to make, compel us to appreciate the person who makes them.

Doing what is right makes that person acceptable to people round about him or her. That person who does right is acclaimed by the whole world. – On earth and, I believe, in heaven they are acclaimed as worthy, and we confess that they must be acceptable to God as well. – Our hope is that anyone who does what is right will be acceptable in the sight of God, just as he or she is acceptable in the sight of all people.

But the other phrase, “In every nation anyone who fears him”, is a bit harder to comprehend, isn’t it? What is this “fear”? We have often heard the phrase “the fear of the Lord”, haven’t we? – and I am sure we have wondered just what it is. This fear is something that we don’t acknowledge in our lives. Fear is not anything we wish, is it? Do we fear our neighbour? What about the dog wandering in our yard? Do you fear what is coming for lunch? Although we are afraid, primordial fear is just not part of our world!

But for “homo religiosus” as described by the historian of religion, this fear is an integral part of life. The forces around him are manifold and extraordinary, so very different from her normal circumstances. Fear delineates where the holy erupts into life. This fear is something far deeper than the being frightened of the unknown, it is part of one’s essential being in the world.

The world in which this model human being lives is one of mystery, divine mystery. The religious person sees the sacred in extraordinary and mundane events. That perception allows a healthy fear of the Other to be part of life. That Otherness of God is what should promote our fear of the Lord, and so should allow us to be worthy of acceptance to God.

However, we don’t want to be frightened in any circumstances, do we? The magical monsters of the horror movies, that gruesome figure hiding in the darkness, is what we usually think of when we talk about being afraid. But is that what this fear of the Lord is? You know how I am going to answer this, don’t you? The fear of the Lord has nothing to do with being afraid. It is standing in awe of what is not ourselves. This fear places us firmly in the world which is beyond our control.

However, we are not under the control of what causes that fear. Our awe of the world allows us to take control of our selves and move in the world. Religion gives us the stories and history of the world about us, so that we can understand. Religion gives us the ways we can deal with those things about us. Religion makes everything meaningful. As the historian of religion says, religious myths, symbols and rituals place the person in the world in which he lives and moves and has being.

That person has the fear appropriate to life in all its fullness. That is why someone is acceptable to God.

But how does all this relate to the Easter Event? How does this relate to our celebrations of the resurrection of the incarnate Lord three days after the Passover of God?

Why do we consider who is acceptable to God when this miracle is the focus of our liturgy today? The mystery of our faith is so far beyond our comprehension, we are at a loss when it comes to speaking about it. We are fearful of that moment of power. We fear in a most appropriate way the manifestation of God’s glory in our lives through the religious recitation of the story of our faith, a story which has nothing whatsoever to do with our ordinary, and (dare I say it?) profane lives.

That is what the fear of the Lord does, it opens us to the sacred power in our lives, that life of fullness, full of mystery and power to live truly, the power to grasp the good and do it.

I think that is why we are asked to consider Peter’s words in the Acts of the Apostles today of all days.

Any person who is fearful of the sacred power in the world about him or her truly understands their places. They live in an ordered world, a world in which they will do what is right.

That is why I think so many of us have found much to console and to inspire us during this year of lockdown. We have taken control of our lives. We have come to know what is important and stripped away what has been illusory, like all those false gods and idols which the bible proscribes. We have also banished the cant of the crowd from our lives, no longer subject to the fickle fake news in which many are wont to revel.

We have stepped away from the mundane to find a profound source of meaning in the midst of confusion. We have turned in many cases to a sacred fear of the world.

This fear does not immobilise us. We are energised by this fear. That is why we find the resurrection as the source of our faith. We, like Christ, erupt from the tomb in order to live a risen life, a life of fullness as Christ promised us.

We are enabled to do what is right because of our fear of the Lord, because we have experienced the sacred in the midst of the profanity of the world. We are those people whom Peter proclaims acceptable to God. We have stood in the midst of the chaos and created a cosmos of good works and profound fear of the other. We live out our loving care for the other with awe. This is why we keep Easter, to remind ourselves of the profound fear we have experienced and our courage to do what is right, to be sacred in a profane world.

Amen

Passion Sunday

Collect

Most merciful God, who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ delivered and saved the world: grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross we may triumph in the power of his victory; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Gracious Father, you gave up your Son out of love for the world: lead us to ponder the mysteries of his passion, that we may know eternal peace through the shedding of our Saviour’s blood, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Lord Jesus Christ, you have taught us that what we do for the least of our brothers and sisters we do also for you: give us the will to be the servant of others as you were the servant of all, and gave up your life and died for us, but are alive and reign, now and for ever.

Readings

Old Testament

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Psalm

1    Have mercy on me, O God, in your great goodness;
according to the abundance of your compassion blot out my offences.

2    Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness
and cleanse me from my sin.

3    For I acknowledge my faults
and my sin is ever before me.

4    Against you only have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,

5    So that you are justified in your sentence
and righteous in your judgement.

6    I have been wicked even from my birth,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.

7    Behold, you desire truth deep within me
and shall make me understand wisdom in the depths of my heart.

8    Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean;
wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.

9    Make me hear of joy and gladness,
that the bones you have broken may rejoice.

10    Turn your face from my sins
and blot out all my misdeeds.

11    Make me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.

12    Cast me not away from your presence
and take not your holy spirit from me.

13    Give me again the joy of your salvation
and sustain me with your gracious spirit;

Psalm 51

or

9    How shall young people cleanse their way
to keep themselves according to your word?

10    With my whole heart have I sought you;
O let me not go astray from your commandments.

11    Your words have I hidden within my heart,
that I should not sin against you.

12    Blessed are you, O Lord;
O teach me your statutes.

13    With my lips have I been telling
of all the judgements of your mouth.

14    I have taken greater delight in the way of your testimonies
than in all manner of riches.

15    I will meditate on your commandments
and contemplate your ways.

16    My delight shall be in your statutes
and I will not forget your word.

Psalm 51

Epistle

So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,

‘You are my Son,
today I have begotten you’;

as he says also in another place,

‘You are a priest for ever,
according to the order of Melchizedek.’

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

Hebrews 5:5-10

Gospel

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.

‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

John 12:20-33

Sermon on Passion Sunday

In our collect for today, we confess and praise God who “by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ delivered and saved the world.” This is a strange exclamation for us to make in the twenty-first century, isn’t it? No one around us would seem to understand such a remark – after all, has Boris Johnson or any of the government ever looked at the salvation of the British people and made comment on how it will come about? All our leaders speak about little things in the immediate future – “When will lockdown end?” “What about the economy?” “When will the pubs open?” These are the questions they wish to address. But what about that goal for the salvation of all creation? Has anyone been thinking about the eternal verities amongst the very present inconveniences of wearing masks and keeping two metres apart, or not gathering en masse, or not enjoying the company of intimate groups, of staying at home and not travelling to places just because we want to?

Does a trip to Spain matter more over against salvation? What does going to a full Wembley Stadium matter when we lose our eternal lives? Why doesn’t our family fulfill our desire for love and belonging, a love which can encompass our neighbours without a second thought? All of this drives us to the religious intent of life.

A friend said that anthropologists have revealed the fact that of the 500 different societies in the world 90% will happily discuss God. I have to conclude that there are few places where “politics and religion” are eschewed as proper subjects for conversation between friends, or even with strangers. (You might remember that anecdote from the era of the early Church that you were more likely to discuss the Trinity rather than the price when you went to buy bread.) After all, isn’t our ownmost possibility a proper topic for discussion between consenting adults?

Don’t friends ask the hard questions of each other? Don’t you immediately want to ask your partner, “What is wrong?” when you hear merely a sigh? You may remember that I take Cicero’s definition of friendship to heart, that friends can speak of anything without let or hindrance, and nothing will be remembered or fester whatever you have said. A friend will listen and give you their thoughts there and then, and you will listen to that friend without any affectation. Good old Cicero, he was stoic in everything. Like our friend Rudyard Kipling whose words from “If” stands in the midst of the great struggles of Wimbledon’s centre court, Cicero wants every person to treat all things the same. Good or ill – it doesn’t matter – all must be treated with the indifference we reserve for our toothbrush, an item which merits our utmost care.

If we understand this attitude, I think we can move to what the collect is trying to say. When we focus on eternal salvation, doesn’t everything pale into insignificance? Doesn’t everything fit in next to one another in proper order, as one thing never takes precedence over any other thing because of our faith?

But what is the result of this faith? What benefits does it bestow? Do we become the “Ubermensch” of Nietzsche or the Superman of DC Comics? Do we gain magical power like Harry Potter? No – nothing like that. Rather, when we have faith, we are led “to ponder the mysteries of Christ’s passion, so that we may know eternal peace.” What a prize faith affords us! Imagine that! – “Eternal peace” – that is something we don’t really know, is it? Do riches calm us? Do our possessions pacify the stirrings of our hearts? No, they don’t. At least that is what religion teaches, that is what all my philosophy concludes, but what are your thoughts on the subject?

Perhaps that is a question which should be raised when we gather with friends and family by phone or ipad. That is a question which must be considered when we meet people face to face in the future. We begin thinking about those mysteries in the free discourse between friends. With friends, we can explore those incalculable advantages of eternal verity. After all, isn’t the dialogue of friends the only place where anything can be discussed without offence? Imagine asking Mr Sunak about the benefits of the passion of Christ. Would Kier Starmar rush to discuss the merits of “the shedding of our Saviour’s blood”? Would Boris Johnson wish to ponder with you just how salvation for the world can be achieved? Would they take the time to converse with any of us about how we perceive the benefits of turning to God in our day to day lives?

Don’t we begin to understand those Greeks who approached Philip with the words, “We want to see Jesus!”? Don’t we want to see Jesus, that friend of friends as our own friend. When we have this attitude of friendship, the openness toward dialogue with the other, can’t we speak about anything?

When there is a true freedom of speech, like the conversation between friends, there is something new in the substance of our communication. We might reveal what our hearts are really like. I want to be able to open my soul to the world, but when we don those masks we wear daily  out in the world, I cannot. I have to hide behind a persona, that mask. But imagine if that were not the case, and our real hearts were clear to see, not hidden by any personal motives or concerns, without any mask of any sort. Could it be that these words from the prophet might be true?

“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

When that law of love is in our hearts, when God is our intent, when we are faithful in the little things, then life in all its fullness will be ours. Without those masks, then shall the lamb lie down with the lion and peace shall reign in all creation, that peace of salvation graced to the world through the crucifixion and ultimately the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Amen