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

Sunday Lent 2

Collect

Almighty God, you show to those who are in error the light of your truth, that they may return to the way of righteousness: grant to all those who are admitted into the fellowship of Christ’s religion, that they may reject those things that are contrary to their profession, and follow all such things as are agreeable to the same; through our Lord Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Almighty God, by the prayer and discipline of Lent may we enter into the mystery of Christ’s sufferings, and by following in his Way come to share in his glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Almighty God, you see that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’ Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, ‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.

God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.’

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

Psalm

23    Praise the Lord, you that fear him;
O seed of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him, O seed of Israel.

24    For he has not despised nor abhorred the suffering of the poor; neither has he hidden his face from them;
but when they cried to him he heard them.

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

For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.

For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations’, according to what was said, ‘So numerous shall your descendants be.’ He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him’, were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

Romans 4:13-25

Gospel

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’

Mark 8:31-38

Sermon on Sunday Lent 2

When we pray “Almighty God, you show to those who are in error the light of your truth, that they may return to the way of righteousness”, don’t you wonder, just how this works? How do we see the light and return to what is good? This becomes a moral question of the first order, and I think moral questions are the most important in life and for life.

This question faces all of us, time and again. Don’t people say to us, “You are being foolish, this is what is true – this is what needs to be done”? Someone undoubtedly has said that to you, I am sure, because so many have said to me that they know what is right and I don’t – that I have begun to think that I am foolish, but more importantly I begin to think that I have deceived myself for the whole of my life. But have I? I say to them – Show me the error of my way of life. I surely have made mistakes, but is my way of life without righteousness, without any value or goodness? Have I lived without considered thought about all I have done. I don’t ask this about being a christian, rather I ask this about my day to day life, my very existence. Have I lived an evil life? Have I embraced an evil which I have not recognised? So I implore you, ‘Show me the error of my ways! so that I can turn to righteousness and truth.’

I keep asking the questions about that change – that conversion of my life. How will you make me understand where the path of righteousness is? Shine that light in my life. But still, the question remains, how will you do that?

And yet the ultimate question has to be asked: When will God do so for all of us? When will the world be taught about goodness and truth? When will the world recognise the light in world, that light which has not been extinguished despite our ignorance and corrupt willfulness?

The philosopher speaks of “the call of conscience” which orders the whole of one’s life. That call is the voice I long to hear, not the commands of regulations, but the divine voice of the spirit. I do not need to be bullied into submission, for I am sure that I would willingly follow the voice of reason, something always asked of me by parents and teachers alike. The cane never worked, but persuading me what is right always will. – “Hearts and minds,” the brigadier always said – and I am sure we have to agree with him. If we have turned our hearts and minds to the light, to the good, to truth – when we have made that complete turn – life will be fine, and the world will be transformed for everyone. Perhaps we might even have attained world peace and personal contentment for each and every one of us.

I think most of us would agree that the strictures of law and regulation rankle our clear vision – they frustrate our lives of freedom. Perhaps this is why covid has become a global emergency – because our personal whims have been frustrated. No one wants to be tied down by any of the red tape of lockdowns, long or short. We say that the imposition of restrictions has smothered us as we wear our masks in public. But have we been denied?

I think these cloth masks have really been a sign of what has always been. We have always hidden behind masks, only now they are real physical things. Whether it is a black mask, like those the robbers in the cowboy films always wore, or the light blue-green mask of the nurse in Casualty – the mask is always between us, obscuring and revealing at the same time. The mask is how we reveal ourselves as we go into the world, how we interact with the world. The psychologists and the sociologists have always spoken of the masks we wear to cope with the others ’round about us.

For instance, don’t we wear a blank mask when we wish to avoid people? Don’t we put on that mask of disregard which does not allow engagement from time to time? We don’t even look at someone sometimes as we let the mask be our face between us. Don’t we, in other instances, pretend to be “the professional” who does not want to engage, when we come across a difficult customer? Don’t we get really feisty when we want our own way in the shop? And don’t the sparks really fly when those two masks are exposed to one another at the same time? I begin to wonder, have our masks obscured who we really are?

Let’s acknowledge that masks will always be there – and actually they always have been there. We have always worn masks, both figurative and real. With Covid, our lives have changed without any possibility of reversal. The old ways have gone forever. Now we must keep a proper social distance … now we must act with care for the other. That is what the mask signifies – that we actually do care through the mask. Isn’t this why the moralists have always said – Life is living for others?

The words of the Collect keep coming back to me, ‘you show to those who are in error the light of your truth, that they may return to the way of righteousness’. Those whom we have placed in positions to wear the mask of leadership promulgate regulations and then flout them, so we wonder about whether they are necessary – let alone workable. They speak in contradictions and act in ways we would call hypocritical. Such an observation is not new. Didn’t Jesus call the leaders of his time hypocrites? And in our gospel reading for today, doesn’t Jesus call Peter Satan?

However, it is not just our leaders who are wearing masks to hide behind … let’s look at ourselves. Are we not just as sinful as our leaders? Don’t we ourselves say one thing and do another? Don’t we wear masks to cover our shame? Isn’t the light of righteousness missing in our lives? Haven’t we ourselves missed the mark which truth and goodness make in the world?

I want to say that we should keep praying our collect day by day, so we “may reject those things that are contrary to our profession of faith in the one good God, and follow all such things as are agreeable to that faith.” It is a constant struggle to open our hearts and minds to the “light of God’s truth, that we may return to the way of righteousness.” When we overcome the darkness, doesn’t life become rich and full again as we walk in the light?

Amen

Second Sunday Before Lent

Collect

Almighty God, you have created the heavens and the earth and made us in your own image: teach us to discern your hand in all your works and your likeness in all your children; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit reigns supreme over all things, now and for ever.

or

Almighty God, give us reverence for all creation and respect for every person, that we may mirror your likeness in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

God our creator, by your gift the tree of life was set at the heart of the earthly paradise, and the bread of life at the heart of your Church: may we who have been nourished at your table on earth be transformed by the glory of the Saviour’s cross and enjoy the delights of eternity; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.

Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.

When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.

Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth—

when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil.

When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,

when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,

when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,

when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;

and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,

rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.

Proverbs 8:1, 22-31

Psalm

O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.

There is the sea, spread far and wide,
and there move creatures beyond number, both small and great.

Psalm 104

Epistle

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Colossians 1:15-20

Gospel

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

John 1:1-14

Sermon on the Second Sunday Before Lent

I have to confess that all of the readings for today speak to me of the same thing , even though readings are so diverse.

From Proverbs we hear about the eternal nature of wisdom. From before anything was created Wisdom was with God. Don’t we hear Wisdom say, “I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race”?

But can Wisdom or God delight in the human race today? The global catastrophes we know about cry out to be judged. – The health, environmental and moral disaster stares each one of us in the eye today, and that universal failure should call to mind our very own hubris. – Then I begin to wonder, is God or Wisdom still willing to delight in the human race? Then I ask myself: Do you feel proud of what you have done to stop the pandemic, to stop global warming, or to raise the moral fibre of humanity?

I know that I curse myself for doing nothing for the betterment of the world. I have failed to improve the environment and the society in which I live. Great guilt attaches to the whole of my life because I have not made anything better for the next generation, never mind the third and fourth generations to come. (What is that biblical quotation? –  the parents have drunk sour wine and the children’s teeth are set on edge even to the third and fourth generation. I fear I have done precisely that. I am one of those parents of the children to come. Is their inheritance to be a great debt for my failure, this global disaster?) What little I do is here in these pages, reflecting on Wisdom and humanity.

If Wisdom is the background for all of creation, what have we done to show that we comprehend her in any way? I suppose we have to start with the words of the Psalmist. “O Lord, how manifold are your works!” Whatever exists – in the air, on the earth and under the water – is a gift from God in his wisdom. This is the new beginning we have all wished for during this year of global emergency.

Everyone wants to get back to “normal”. But what is “normal”? The Prime Minister and every businessman want to get the economy back – but is the normal only about
that
abstract concept which has nothing to do with you and your neighbour? I would want to say that until the love of the other happens, wisdom will not be appreciated within the whole of creation. So we come back to our first reading – Wisdom is at the heart of life, isn’t it?

The New Testament reading from Colossians, in fact, talks of the Christ in terms which are similar to the way Wisdom is extolled in Proverbs.

All things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

But then Paul takes this principle from the past and makes it real, here and now, to all whom he writes –

He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.

The life we lead within this body of faithful people finds its direction in the head, in Christ, the Lord.

I wonder, why did Paul make this leap from Wisdom to Christ, and attribute all Wisdom’s characteristics to Christ? I think it is because there is a whole swathe of thought in the church and in the Hellenistic culture generally that commends this line of thinking – this linking of very real symbols – to make sense of the world. I think the theological speculation found in the Gospel of John is more widespread than generally thought. I am convinced by the theory of trajectories of thought, that there may not be distinct linear groups connected by the same logical arguments, but I believe such general thought patterns do cover large swathes of people. The symbols pop up far and wide. Sometimes they even come together in a particular writer or set of texts.

I have seen a similarity in the views of many communities in spite of distance in time and space. And here is one of the most interesting coalescences – between Old Testament Wisdom, the Pauline writings and the Johannine community, a complex which connects the whole of the bible, even if it is not causal.

What I have considered about the transference of the qualities of Wisdom to Christ in Paul, actually does happen between the Greek philosophical tradition and the gospeller whom we name John. That Logos, “the Word” as it is normally translated, assimilates the attributes of Wisdom portrayed in Proverbs and the gentile tradition of Greek philosophy. The blending of the two cultures, Hellenistic and Jewish, in this prologue to the Gospel of John, signifies a real joining of minds.

That conjunction of symbols and meanings is what allows faith to be expressed, and faith is not static, it moves with us through life and the symbols and meanings reconfigure themselves at every moment.

This has to be true, when I fall in love, do I not transform through the whole of my life just as my beloved does? Do I not have to work hard to understand my lover and keep our love alive? Doesn’t the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church do the same with the faith it passes on to each and every one of us in all generations? And don’t we have to make our beloved our own, whether it be my partner for life or Christ?

How have we made Wisdom our own in these parlous times? In the peril of catastrophe how have we loved each and every one of our neighbours and approached God? Have we been able to adjust to the new normal of social distance? Or do we think that the old ways are the only means to happiness? Does Wisdom not speak to us clearly in every situation?

Wisdom must speak to the situation, just as love allows us to act in every situation. As faithful people, as people faithful to God and neighbour, we are sure that ultimately everything tells us about Jesus Christ. At least that is where all our readings for today led me – to Wisdom and thereby to Christ. I hope I have not lost you in my meanderings through the wilderness of readings, meanings and symbols.

Amen

Sunday, Epiphany 2

Collect

Almighty God, in Christ you make all things new: transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives make known your heavenly glory; 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

Eternal Lord, our beginning and our end: bring us with the whole creation to your glory, hidden through past ages and made known in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ and he said, ‘Here I am!’ and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, ‘Samuel!’ Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’ Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” ’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’ Then the Lord said to Samuel, ‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering for ever.’

Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, ‘Samuel, my son.’ He said, ‘Here I am.’ Eli said, ‘What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.’ So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, ‘It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.’

As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.

1 Samuel 3:1-20

Psalm

1    O Lord, you have searched me out and known me;
you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.

2    You mark out my journeys and my resting place
and are acquainted with all my ways.

3    For there is not a word on my tongue,
but you, O Lord, know it altogether.

4    You encompass me behind and before
and lay your hand upon me.

5    Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
so high that I cannot attain it.

12    For you yourself created my inmost parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

13    I thank you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
marvellous are your works, my soul knows well.

14    My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was made in secret and woven in the depths of the earth.

15    Your eyes beheld my form, as yet unfinished;
already in your book were all my members written,

16    As day by day they were fashioned
when as yet there was none of them.

17    How deep are your counsels to me, O God!
How great is the sum of them!

18    If I count them, they are more in number than the sand,
and at the end, I am still in your presence.

Psalm 139

Epistle

Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’ And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’

Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. They sing a new song:

    ‘You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,

    for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;

    you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,
and they will reign on earth.’

Revelation 5:1-10

Gospel

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’

John 1:43-51

Sermon on Sunday, Epiphany 2

In the Old Testament lesson we heard, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”

Events of late have, I think, confirmed these words. We do not hear people speaking of their vision for the future, rather they complain about how they have been hard done by, or they harp on about what they want now. Too many are silent about what should be. People are too keen on their own comfort – they want to luxuriate in rich meals and triple chocolate desserts, let alone drink quantities of champagne and schnapps. This culture of indulgence has overtaken everyone, particularly during this past Christmass season, hasn’t it? All the cooking programs, teaching us about luxurious recipes and talking of gourmet experiences near and far, have confirmed that we remain in what many parts of the bible castigate as “the world”. We have turned away from anything spiritual of late, haven’t we? The corona virus has seen to that.

I am afraid that we have become what we don’t want to be. People have acted on their basest desires and they have, as Paul said somewhere, not been able to do what they really should aspire to. They have not done the good they in their hearts know that they should do. I think we act on jealousy and hate too often. We want this or that, and we let such desires control us, rather than let the good intentions in us control what we do.

We should be able to see this happening all around us – I suppose we can see it when we look at the events of ten days ago in Washington, DC. There we have the concupiscence of humanity being acted out – it is writ large, as they sometimes say, don’t you think? Sadly, I have to reject what is happening in the land of my birth. With the words of the Collect I have to cry out, “Almighty God, in Christ you make all things new: transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives make known your heavenly glory.”

We have to acknowledge our very parlous state – we are in danger both without and within – clearly we are at risk physically and spiritually. The words from our collect should guide us through the fraught dangers of this new year. Last year was one where we all felt poorer than the poor because we were so restricted. We could not get our hair cut when we wanted, nor could we go to watch our favourite clubs play their fixtures. We have not been able to start our weeks by gathering to worship, nor could we finish the week off by meeting friends at the pub.

Life was not what we wanted it to be during the last year. We now fear that this coming year will be the same. We all felt we were deprived of everything we deserved. They want to say – Am I not worthy of a pint at the end of the week? Why can’t I see my friends when I want to? Surely I should be able to do anything I want. – Isn’t that the mantra of this generation?

But what do we deserve? Have we done anything that merits any sort of reward? I know that I have not. I may want to think so, but when I am more considered, I have to admit that I am deserving of nothing. I am that wretch of that famous hymn – lost and blind hoping to be found and truly see.

However, at precisely that moment – when I realise that I am worthy of nothing – at that moment, I can look at my life clearly and I can say that I have been blessed. So many good things have happened to me, this undeserving wretch. – I have to admit that grace has abounded in my life. If I consider my life carefully, I have to say that things have happened which have had nothing to do with my worth – both negative and positive – and they have shaped my life as I know it. Overall, I do not deserve what I have been given – in particular, the love which so many have shown. That is the miraculous in my life. That is what I have to shout about now in my confined life, this life restricted to four walls.

When Jesus asked, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?’ he was asking of something more fundamental than miracles.

How many trees have you sat under? Did Jesus see you there? On those terribly hot summer days, or those terribly wet days? Whenever we wanted shelter we sat under the tree. In that moment of protection, we are self contained and, probably, self satisfied. Certainly, Nathanael must have felt safe under his fig tree. He was certain that nothing could challenge him, nothing could shift him from his cosy seat. But he was wrong, wasn’t he? Jesus came and told him about his idling under the fig tree. In fact, I would say he
confronted
Nathanael with these words, ‘Do you love me because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?’

I don’t love you just because you saw me under the fig tree. I don’t believe in Jesus just because he said he saw me in my idleness under that figurative fig tree. The fig tree of the story becomes something else in our lives, doesn’t it? The fig tree, I think, becomes a symbol in our lives, a symbol through which we make sense of our lives. What trees have figured in your life? What symbolic trees enlighten you? – The tree of life, whether you name it as the tree in the garden of Eden or the tree on which our saviour was hung up to die for our sake – this tree of life plays a big role in our lives, whether we see ourselves sitting beneath it or not.

Another very significant figure in the history of mankind sat under a tree. Do you know who that was? There is Newton, but there is another who is just as significant. The Buddha sat under the bo tree as he moved towards enlightenment. The zen buddhist continues the practice of “sitting” – waiting on his entry into nirvana, much like the contemporary christian religious sitting in eager anticipation of the coming in glory of the Lord and King of this world.

Jesus continued, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ There is more in store for us than idling under the tree, isn’t there? I wonder what these greater things will be, don’t you?

Amen