Trinity Sunday

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.

Amen

Prayer After 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.

Amen

Readings

Old Testament

Does not wisdom call out? Does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights along the way, where the paths meet, she takes her stand; beside the gates leading into the city, at the entrances, she cries aloud:

“To you, O men, I call out; I raise my voice to all mankind. The LORD brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old; I was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began. When there were no oceans, I was given birth, when there were no springs abounding with water; before the mountains were settled in place, before the hills, I was given birth, before he made the earth or its fields or any of the dust of the world. I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep, when he gave the sea its boundary so that the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. Then I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.”

Proverbs 8.1–4, 22–31

Psalm

1    O Lord our governor,
how glorious is your name in all the world!

2    Your majesty above the heavens is praised
out of the mouths of babes at the breast.

3    You have founded a stronghold against your foes,
that you might still the enemy and the avenger.

4    When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have ordained,

5    What are mortals, that you should be mindful of them;
mere human beings, that you should seek them out?

6    You have made them little lower than the angels
and crown them with glory and honour

7    You have given them dominion over the works of your hands
and put all things under their feet,

8    All sheep and oxen,
even the wild beasts of the field,

9    The birds of the air, the fish of the sea
and whatsoever moves in the paths of the sea.

10    O Lord our governor,
how glorious is your name in all the world!

Psalm 8

Epistle

Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.

Romans 5.1–5

Gospel

Jesus said: “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.“

John 16.12–15

Sermon on Trinity Sunday

The one book that everyone quotes on Trinity Sunday is that of St Augustine, De Trinitate – About the Trinity. I came across an interesting article which dealt with this book in a less prolix form – twelve pages rather than 500 – and being a lazy fellow, I opted to read the twelve pages. The first paragraph reads

Augustine’s purposes in writing De Trinitate Augustine had three main objectives. He wished to demonstrate to critics of the Nicene creed that the divinity and co-equality of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are rooted in scripture. He intended to tell pagan philosophers the need for faith in a divine mediator so that divine self-revelation and redemption can occur. Finally, he wanted to convince his readers that salvation and spiritual growth are connected with knowing themselves as images of  the Triune God, from whom they came and toward whom they go, with a dynamic tendency to union realized by likeness to God who is Love.

Augustine’s approach was that of faith seeking understanding of the mystery of  one God as Father, Son, and Spirit. (Cambridge Companions Online © Cambridge University Press, 2006-7 MARY T. CLARK De Trinitate)

That summary sets out Augustine’s project quite clearly. Let’s consider the first aspect. He wanted to use the evidence of scripture to make his argument. This seems rather strange to us, doesn’t it? Would we start our arguments about God by citing passages of scripture?

I don’t think so. Scholarship has allowed us to understand some things about the text of the bible which were unthought in the fifth century. That summary I’m using catalogues how Augustine cites scripture’s use of trinitarian language. However, biblical theologians have begun to question whether those trinitarian formulae are contemporary with Jesus or the authors of the biblical texts. Rather, they say that those passages seem to have come through liturgical usage, rather than a revelation in the text of the bible. This is a theological matter which would need to be discussed – something we might want to do over cake with Steve.

However, the point Augustine is making is that scripture does incorporate trinitarian formulae. They may not be biblical revelations, but his citations do help focus our thoughts on God and how God is in the world.

This leads to the second point of that useful summary: “the need for faith in a divine mediator so that divine self-revelation and redemption can occur.” This is a rather difficult point. Many people see faith as a final landing place on which everything in life is founded. I would have to agree that faith is where everything in life is founded, but I will always disagree that it is a final landing place. Faith is the whence of all experience. Faith looks outward, ever inviting the other in. Faith is like perception, when we look at something we turn our attention to that thing, don’t we? It is that openness toward that object of perception which is significant in faith.

When we open our eyes and ears we can see and hear what the Lord has to say, we are no longer distracted by our own inner voices. That clarity is what Augustine wants the pagan philosophers to embrace, and so entertain the possibility of “divine self-revelation and redemption.” That is no insignificant step to take – and I think it is a step we need to encourage in this generation. We don’t really accept the idea of “divine self-revelation and redemption”, do we? Another discussion to be had some time. I would say, the biblical passages, “Let him who has eyes to see,” and “Let him who has ears to hear,” have to do with this debate Augustine is having with those pagan philosophers, and our own discussions with our contemporaries. I think there is a blindness and a profound deafness today and I think we can learn from Augustine’s polemic for our own evangelism.

There is what Augustine would call a paganism abroad nowadays. There is, it seems, a denial of revelation in any sense, even to the point of not accepting what another says as possibly right. We can see this in many areas of life, from politics to marriage (or should I say divorce when the contemporary legalism comes to the fore in the matter?). But the third point the summary makes is even more significant,

Finally, he wanted to convince his readers that salvation and spiritual growth are connected with knowing themselves as images of  the Triune God, from whom they came and toward whom they go, with a dynamic tendency to union realized by likeness to God who is Love.

Augustine’s intention “to convince his readers that salvation and spiritual growth are connected with knowing themselves” is something we can take to heart, isn’t it? I am not worried about human being in the image of God, at the moment, though that thought should be significant for us all. However, I don’t think this generation takes the notion of salvation and spiritual growth very seriously. What about you? Does the care of souls figure at all in your own life experience? It certainly hasn’t in mine. (But that is another line of enquiry altogether, which we must forego.) Growth is fundamental in our personal stories, fifty years ago everyone was looking at personal development and the journey of the self with the psychiatrists like Laing, Jung and Freud taking centre stage. The development of the whole person was the aim then, and this has been renewed by contemporary movements, like mindfulness for instance. Yes, I agree about personal growth and moving to know one’s self, just as the philosophers and theologians of the tradition have always taught, so I think it is essential in our faithful lives. – All of that, and I have only covered the first paragraph of this twelve page article about Augustine’s treatise on the trinity. My writer’s next sentence is important for us. “Augustine’s approach was that of faith seeking understanding of the mystery of  one God as Father, Son, and Spirit.” Augustine’s approach should appeal to us Anglicans, though. I say this because the most well-known theologian of the English middle ages, St Anselm, uses this phrase in his essay on the proof of the existence of God.

Augustine’s talking about the links between humanity and divinity should encourage us, especially in our own evangelism here and now. The mystery of God and the mystery of man are intertwined. Knowing self allows that we can know God, because of the “images” in man of God. God, “from whom [these images] came and toward whom they go,” reveals himself in ourselves, in the “dynamic tendency to union realized by likeness to God who is Love,” realised in the one commandment our Lord gave us. ‘Augustine ends with a prayer: “Let me remember you, let me understand you, let me love you. Increase these things in me until you reform me completely.”’

Amen 

Pentecost Sunday

Collect

God, who as at this time taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit: grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgement in all things and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through the merits of Christ Jesus our Saviour, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Amen

Prayer after Communion

Faithful God, who fulfilled the promises of Easter by sending us your Holy Spirit and opening to every race and nation the way of life eternal: open our lips by your Spirit, that every tongue may tell of your glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

Readings

Acts

When the day of Pentecost came, the disciples were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.” Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.‘“

Acts 2.1–21

Psalm

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

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

28    There go the ships, and there is that Leviathan
which you have made to play in the deep.

29    All of these look to you
to give them their food in due season.

30    When you give it them, they gather it;
you open your hand and they are filled with good.

31    When you hide your face they are troubled;
when you take away their breath,
they die and return again to the dust.

32    When you send forth your spirit, they are created,
and you renew the face of the earth.

33    May the glory of the Lord endure for ever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works;

34    He looks on the earth and it trembles;
he touches the mountains and they smoke.

35    I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
I will make music to my God while I have my being.

36    So shall my song please him
while I rejoice in the Lord.

Psalm 104

Epistle

Those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

Romans 8.14–17

Gospel

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.

“If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor to be with you for ever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. “All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.“

John 14.8–17(25–27)

Sermon on Pentecost Sunday

Welcome to our celebration of the Feast of Pentecost, one of the High Holy Days of the Anglican calendar. However, I would like to call this Sunday “the festival of interpretation”. – Why would you want to do that? I hear you ask. My answer – it is because of today’s reading from Acts.

A crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own language?”

How can these rude Galilean fishermen possibly speak the languages of Parthia, Mesopotamia, Phrygia, Egypt and Lybia, when they had never been further than Jerusalem? How could these diverse foreigners hear “their own languages”? Don’t we use the reverse phrase all the time? Don’t we say, “He doesn’t speak my language,” when we talk of people whom, we think, do not have any idea of what makes us tick? Why – I am sure some you say that of me, when I have wittered on and blathered about how interesting I find the readings for the day.

This phrase of “speaking one’s language” is an old one, isn’t it? Just what does it mean? It was in the news all the time in the 1960s and 70s when the generation gap and the bitterness between hippies and their conservative parents were openly discussed, when demonstrations against just about anything our parents were proud of made us want to rebel, or sometimes even take a harder line than our parents. That divide between people still exists, and I would say it is even more pronounced nowadays, and we still say “They don’t speak my language.” How can we overcome this polarisation between them and us? How can we all start to speak the same language? Do we have to wait for the miracle of Pentecost to happen again in our time?

I think that miracle of Pentecost’s glossolalia is here right now! I don’t think it is very far away from the tip of our tongues. That is why I want to rename this festival of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

I think we are in the midst of speaking in tongues all the time – that we can speak another’s language. This may be simply saying, “Hello,” in the mother tongue of a visiting stranger. Or it may take the form of listening really hard to a friend in trouble and speaking exactly about his or her predicament, presenting the troubles in light of some resolution.

That is why I think we are in the midst of a cultural revolution, a changing of things in an extraordinary way. When we “speak another’s language,” we  transform the world for that other person and even for ourselves. That is what I can imagine the apocalypse to be – that the stranger becomes a friend through sharing meaning and significance when we speak with one another.

This Feast of Interpretation is one that strikes fear and trembling into the heart of every preacher. It also perplexes the academic theologian. Neither of them thinks they speak anything but plainly to all who would listen to them. Speaking in tongues is a terrifying thing for everyone.

A century ago, however, a famous German theologian looked hard at this problem of the cultural languages we speak. He pointed out that the cultures we live in are very different to the middle east of Jesus’ time. For instance the person in the twentieth century does not have the same expectations as someone living two millennia ago. How could someone with electric lights speak easily with someone whose light was produced only by a fire? The problem is compounded a century on, when we would speak of our children, that present generation which lives in the world of Facebook, Tweets and selfies, a world which is connected twenty-four–seven by hand held devices which can call up information in an instant from many hidden sources.

Such a world would be magical for Jesus and the disciples, wouldn’t it? But we still have to talk about the Jesus from thatworld in this electronic universe. So let’s look at the reading again. 

A crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own language?

Two things struck me as I read this passage again – first, everyone was bewildered, and second, they were utterly amazed. We have, I hope, interpreted what it means to speak in another person’s language. So why were they bewildered and utterly amazed because someone so very different could speak directly to them?

I take it as a given that everyone wants to speak with everyone else clearly and without confusion. Either I am naive, or it is a essential characteristic of being human. I am not sure which. However, I think we all want to be clear to the person opposite us when we look them in the eye.

Bewilderment is something we don’t do nowadays, is it? It is seen as a weakness, a fundamental fault, in contemporary social interaction. Who today admits to being utterly anything, let alone amazed? We are much too sophisticated for that. And for that matter, who would say that they don’t understand someone else? That is a most severe character flaw in this day and age.

Further on in the story, we read ‘Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”’ I wonder whether we would do that today. Do we turn to our neighbour and ask about the meaning of something which had bewildered us? Do we ask our neighbour to explain a statement made by one of those people who “don’t speak my language”? How sad is the state of humanity when we cannot wonder about things with our neighbour – that we can’t say, “What’s it all about, Alfie?”

Are we any different to the people of the bible who heard the disciples on that day in Jerusalem? The disciples spoke with strangers from near and far. – “We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” those strangers exclaim, when they expected nothing but nonsense from the mouths of those Galilean fishermen.

That, I think, is our task – to declare the wonders of God so that others will be able to hear about significance and meaning  in our lives. In other words, we have to translate and interpret the words of the bible, as we understand them, for our contemporaries. We have to speak their language with those who would become our friends in due course because we will come to love them as Christ loved us.

Amen 

Sunday – 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.

Amen

(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.

Amen

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.

Amen

Readings

Acts

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, ‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’

Acts 11:1–18

Psalm

1  Alleluia.

      Praise the Lord from the heavens; •

    praise him in the heights.

2  Praise him, all you his angels; •

    praise him, all his host.

3  Praise him, sun and moon; •

    praise him, all you stars of light.

4  Praise him, heaven of heavens, •

    and you waters above the heavens.

5  Let them praise the name of the Lord, •

    for he commanded and they were created.

6  He made them fast for ever and ever; •

    he gave them a law which shall not pass away.

7  Praise the Lord from the earth, •

    you sea monsters and all deeps;

8  Fire and hail, snow and mist, •

    tempestuous wind, fulfilling his word;

9  Mountains and all hills, •

    fruit trees and all cedars;

10  Wild beasts and all cattle, •

    creeping things and birds on the wing;

11  Kings of the earth and all peoples, •

    princes and all rulers of the world;

12  Young men and women,

    old and young together; •

    let them praise the name of the Lord.

13  For his name only is exalted, •

    his splendour above earth and heaven.

14  He has raised up the horn of his people

    and praise for all his faithful servants, •

    the children of Israel, a people who are near him.

      Alleluia.

Psalm 148

Epistle

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

‘See, the home of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them;

they will be his peoples,

and God himself will be with them;

he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.’

And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

Revelation 21:1–6

Gospel

When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

John 13:31–35

Sermon on Sunday – Easter 5

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’

A news item on Friday sparked some thoughts regarding this reading from Acts. President Trump is wanting only educated English–(presumably the American version)–speaking people to enter the United States. No longer does it seem that the United States will entertain “the poor, those huddled masses, yearning to be free” as the people who can enter that country. This is not a new phenomenon in the present and the previous century, nor is it peculiar to that country. The same sort of debate has been raging in this country for many decades.

‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ Peter was asked. The “uncircumsised” is a circumlocution for “the different”. They are unlike us. The uncircumcised are men who are not Jews, they do not conform to what the Jews expect. In our towns and villages, we are afraid of the incomer, the stranger in our midst. You need only think of how long it took you became a member of the community to see that this is true.

The stranger, the poor, the helpless, the sick, one of the LGBT – These are all people who are different, so different we do not wish to associate with them. Even the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church divides itself into them and us, the conservative evangelicals will not have anything to do with the pentecostalists, the Romans will have nothing to do with the Anglicans, and so on. Fear is at the heart of all of this – those other people are just so very different from us, aren’t they? We have our own ideas of what they are and that idea makes it impossible for us to understand them. Isn’t this what Peter is saying in his own defence?

That great sheet that descended in his vision contained all created things. The voice said they were all licit. He should choose something to eat from that sheet. Peter balked at this, for had always obeyed the law, never had he transgressed the dietary laws, he says.

But now there is a new law, isn’t there? Peter can now eat anything, anything from that cloth is allowed. This new law is inclusive, not exclusive. All things can be taken in. This is a metaphor, isn’t it? Peter speaks of the dietary law in terms of his vision, but we must take it further, as Peter does, when he justifies his sitting down with Gentiles.

How can such an upstanding Jew as Peter sit down at table with a Gentile? They are impure, aren’t they? They eat pork at the very least. Those Gentiles are so very different to us Jews – “we Jewish christians should have nothing to do with gentiles, should we?” asks the other apostles.

That argument reveals a closed community, people who are afraid of anything, or any person, not within the bounds of “the law” – that law ultimately boils down to our own expectations, and we then say what we want is  what is right.

What is “right”? Is it something objective or something we feel in our hearts? Is what is right only personal, something that is right for me? That is a more philosophical discussion than we need at this moment, but it is something which everyone should consider now and again.

Anyway, let’s return to our reading from Acts.

Peter said to his inquisitors, “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.” Peter went with those three men from Caesarea, those gentiles, with six of the group with him. When Peter began to speak to the people at Caesarea, something happened, didn’t it? They began to speak in tongues, this fundamental event in the history of the Church, what is called the birth of the universal Church, an event claimed by every denomination claiming Christ and the Holy Spirit as their own.

How, Peter asks, are they any different from us? They have heard the Word, they have believed and the Spirit has been given to them. Everything happens for a gentile as it does for a Jew, so why should there be any distinction at all?

This story must be founded on something fundamentally new, and our gospel reading points us to what it is. The new commandment Jesus gave. It was given to the Jews who had originally gathered around him, that we love one another just as he has loved us. That love, of which I have spoken time and again, transforms everything. Love makes no distinction between one and another. All are of equal value.

The new commandment is certainly very different from the old law, isn’t it? It is inclusive, so there is no distinction in Christ between male or female, gentile or jew, rich or poor, … the list goes on. The distinction the Jew made between themselves and the gentiles, Peter argues, is no longer applicable. The law of love which Jesus taught – no, the law of love Jesus commanded – turns the world upside down. Inclusion, not exclusion, is the mark of this new community.

Inclusiveness has become a byword today, hasn’t it? Though, I am afraid, we are failing the ideal in so many places. I won’t give any examples, because it is too depressing. Let us just say that it is the case.

We are not showing the love, are we? We are making distinctions for the sake of separation, not the celebration of diversity. If we were merely describing the nuances which make up that rich tapestry of life, that life in all its fulness which we celebrate as the Church universal – everything would be so very different! The Kingdom will have come, just as we pray for it.

So to return to the beginning with that news report from Friday morning. – As a US citizen, I am disheartened by the reported pronouncements of the President, but as a christian I am even more dismayed, for if I am to love my neighbour, how can I accept only someone who is just like me? So many neighbours would be left out, that is for sure. How could I love my neighbour and exclude any person from my company? I want to show that I love others as Jesus has loved me. How can I do anything but invite everyone to sit at table with me? The larder may be bare, but what a happy life it would be, because we show the love and feel it, and better yet, feed it.

Amen

Sunday – 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.

Amen

Prayer after 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.

Amen

Readings

Acts

In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (which, when translated, is Dorcas), who was always doing good and helping the poor. About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Please come at once!” Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them. Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning towards the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called the believers and the widows and presented her to them alive. This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord. Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.

Acts 9.36–43

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 forever.

Psalm 23

Epistle

I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”     All the angels were standing round the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, saying: “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honour and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”

Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, “they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Revelation 7.9–17

Gospel

The time came for the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. The Jews gathered round him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The miracles I do in my Father’s name speak for me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no-one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.“

John 10.22–30

Sermon on Sunday – Easter 4

“How long will you keep us in suspense?” That is the question on everyone’s lips nowadays, isn’t it? We have been asking our politicians this question for over two years, and still there is no answer. But the politicians don’t speak to the big questions which Jesus addresses, do they? They are the little things – it is about a comfortable life that we are usually asking them about. We don’t ask Teresa May whether she is the Messiah, God’s anointed here on earth. We certainly don’t wonder whether David Drew will lead us out of our confusion. Do we ever wonder about the Messiah in these times of doubt and uncertainty?

“How long will you keep us in suspense?” Who is the last person you asked this question? The last person I asked that was my girlfriend when I proposed to her – and I felt at that moment that a new way of life was about to be mine. I really wanted her answer, because all of life hinged on that one answer, or so it seemed.

But my wife is not the Messiah. She did not offer universal salvation with her answer, though it was very much a personal redemption for me.

I am sure you, like me, have an incident which made sense of the whole of life. That is what these moments of clarity do, don’t they? But these little moments are not the epiphany of the saving God. The Messiah does not settle the little things for us, does he (or she)? The Messiah is on the universal stage, from here to the ends of the galaxy. The state of humankind is what is addressed by the Messiah, leading each one of us from sin to righteousness. As we have prayed in our Collect. “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.”

The one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church has always tried to guide us to those things above, to the spiritual life, that life in which righteousness blossoms and sin is no more. The Church guides us into the life of the flock of Christ. The image of the Shepherd and his sheep in the gospel points us to what we are – followers of that Messiah whose epiphany has enlightened creation, whose resurrection gives hope to all. We follow our shepherd in his path to those higher things, don’t we?

However, there are times when we ask our God like those Jews of the reading, “How long will you keep us in suspense?”

This question is similar to that statement of Thomas, “Unless I touch the wounds of Christ …” We are in suspense awaiting the second coming – or at least we should be in some way – and we wonder “When?” This question is natural for us, because we are oriented toward the future. We are always looking forward in our lives. Either we are looking for a new future, or we are hoping that the golden age of the past will be established again in our future.

“How long will you keep us in suspense?” Everyone wonders about the future and that suspense is where we live. We are on tenterhooks awaiting what is to happen. Just what we do during this time is what defines us. So we return to those things above – we ask ourselves: are we pursuing the things that make for righteousness? I think everyone would admit righteousness is well beyond and above our ordinary activity. After all, who pursues the Good through the whole of their life? I know that I have failed. However many times I fail, there are other times when I seek that seemingly impossible goal of the Good, to achieve a righteous act which will bring a glimpse of  the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. At that point my suspense has been ended – for a moment in the twinkling of an eye when I glimpse.

Contrary to popular opinion and what appears to be the considered verdict of the world, I am sure that it is possible to do what is right. I think this is all related to this notion of being in suspense. So many do not hope, they do not suspend their seeking of the immediate pleasure for the sake of something finer, something grander, something further away than immediate gratification. The philosopher talks about the Good as an end in itself. The Good is its own reward. He tells us that we are to do the Good because it is precisely that – Good. It should take no subordinate position in life.

“How long will you keep us in suspense?” We ask this all the time, don’t we? The Good suspends us in time as we anticipate the future right here and now. We are, as some see it, stuck nowhere, without the pleasures of the world and without the ultimate reward of that Good. This is true suspense, isn’t it? We are never sure that what we have chosen is that ultimate Good. We are always in suspense and it is intolerable for most people. We want certainty. We want the answer right now. This suspense is fine for philosophers and saints, but not for the mass of humanity, those sinners of Adam’s line whom Christ came to save. We want to grasp things here and now, don’t we?

The political suspense in which we hang is a perfect example. We are looking for an immediate return rather than a good for all, or that ultimate Good – well, that is what it looks like to me.

“How long will you keep us in suspense?” Is the suspense we experience anything like the suspense of the Jews who were expecting the Messiah? We are awaiting the coming of the Christ in glory at the end of time, aren’t we? We even confess that in our creeds.

However, the question Paul asks in his letters and many of the branches of christianity pursue is whether we are ready for that second coming, that Parousia of the theologians.

So we have to confront the question about the suspense in which we live. Is it a visceral and present Angst? – something more fundamental to existence than our anxiety about whatever immediate concern you like, for Angst is about those higher things to which the Church universal has always directed us.

So let’s look to those things which cause righteousness and salvation. We need to live in suspense – awaiting that ultimate experience of grace. We need to live in suspense as we work for the Kingdom to come. We need to expect that the Good can be reached and teach those whose bellies control their lives that there is something greater than the pursuit of the earthly. Those higher things call us to greater action and force us to suspend everything while we enact those things that serve for righteousness.

Amen

Second Sunday after Easter

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. 

Amen

Post Communion Prayer

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. 

Amen

Readings

Acts

Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.“ 

The men travelling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything. In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!" “Yes, Lord,” he answered. The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.” “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.” But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here— has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptised, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. 

Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. 

Acts 9.1–20

Psalm

1    I will exalt you, O Lord,
because you have raised me up  
and have not let my foes triumph over me. 

2    O Lord my God, I cried out to you  
and you have healed me. 

3    You brought me up, O Lord, from the dead;  
you restored me to life from among those that go down to the Pit. 

4    Sing to the Lord, you servants of his;
give thanks to his holy name. 

5    For his wrath endures but the twinkling of an eye,
his favour for a lifetime.  
Heaviness may endure for a night,
but joy comes in the morning. 

6    In my prosperity I said,
‘I shall never be moved.  
You, Lord, of your goodness,
have made my hill so strong.’ 

7    Then you hid your face from me  
and I was utterly dismayed. 

8    To you, O Lord, I cried;  
to the Lord I made my supplication: 

9    ‘What profit is there in my blood,
if I go down to the Pit?  
Will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness? 

10    ‘Hear, O Lord, and have mercy upon me;  
O Lord, be my helper.’ 

11    You have turned my mourning into dancing;  
you have put off my sackcloth and girded me with gladness; 

12    Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing;
O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever. 

Psalm 30

Epistle

I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise!” 

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever!” The four living creatures said, “Amen”, and the elders fell down and worshipped.

Revelation 5.11–14 

Gospel 

Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Tiberias. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realise that it was Jesus. He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” “No,” they answered. He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards.

When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” Simon Peter climbed aboard and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!"

John 21.1–19 

Sermon on Second Sunday after Easter 

Our sheet containing our readings and psalm includes this introduction to the gospel reading.

Jesus continues to love us even when we think we have lost him. He is always there, waiting for us “on the beach” to reassure us with his presence and to feed us the food of life.

The words, “On the Beach”, brought to mind the novel by Neville Shute. It is a novel which prefigures our present concern about the planet, as it deals with the catastrophic destruction of the world through a nuclear war. At the present, we are concerned with obliteration through our lack of care for the environment – the ecological disaster about which David Attenborough has spoken so eloquently for the last twenty years. The Shute novel shows the destruction of the world through lack of care for each other, an horrific nuclear war which will destroy all life. – However this apocalypse happens, care is at its heart. Love (often characterised as a divine care) is at the heart of all things.

I apologise that I had to resort to Wikipedia as a shortcut to the precis of Shute’s novel because although I had read the novel, it was so long ago, all I remembered was the title and a general impression of apocalyptic doom. So Wikipedia  reminded me of what I should have remembered.

The phrase “on the beach” is a Royal Navy term that means “retired from the Service.” The title also refers to the T S Eliot poem The Hollow Men, which includes the lines:

In this last of meeting places

We grope together

And avoid speech

Gathered on this beach of the tumid river.

Here we have two very different uses of the phrase, “on the beach”. Let’s try to reconcile them as we reflect on the gospel reading.

Jesus is “on the beach” in a very proactive way, isn’t he? This is one of the post Easter-day appearances of Jesus. There he stands by his fire on which he is grilling fish for a meal which he is preparing for his disciples, those fisherman who went back to the old way for a time. The beach on which he invites them to feast is not the place of “the retired” – it is a place whence Jesus will send his disciples back into the world in order to share the love of God, Jesus’ love, for all.

Elliott’s poem suggests something entirely different. More like the beach on which Jesus stood, gathering his disciples to himself yet again. This time with the communion of a shared meal. With that fish which became the symbol of the faith, that “acronym or acrostic in Koine Greek, which translates into English as ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, [Our] Savior’ (ixthus).”

Shute’s novel was pessimistic, with all the characters taking their own communion of the suicide pill because they felt no hope for themselves or for humanity. The planet was poisoned with atomic fallout – such a quick end, almost as quick an end as some see through the destruction of the atmosphere by human activity. I am making no judgements, I only see a similarity between the current news and Shute’s novel. Wikipedia also provided another insight into the Shute’s novel

Printings of the novel … contain extracts from the poem on the title page, under Shute’s name, including the above quotation and the concluding lines:

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

This, according to what I read of the novel, is precisely how lives end in Shute’s vision of that short and bleak future. I wonder whether Shute and Elliott are at one in questioning the vision of the end of the world depicted in Revelations and the other apocalyptic literature of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. In that literature, the destruction of the world at the hands of the four horsemen, or the avenging angels, is violent and bloody. The faithful look forward to the eschatological reversal in full techicolor, when the poor will inherit the earth, and all the rest of the beatitudes will come to fruition.

So let’s go back to Elliott’s words, which make sense of our reading.

In this last of meeting places

We grope together

And avoid speech

Gathered on this beach of the tumid river.

The beach is where we meet Jesus for the last time in his sharing of sustenance for the life ahead. On that beach we “grope together” unwilling to speak. Much like the disciples when they hid away in the darkened room for fear of others. Gathered together by the water, in Elliott’s poem a “tumid river”, a swollen river. That water flows in contrast to us hollow men as we grope together, for it is bursting,  suggesting it is abounding in life.

So here we are, gathered together on the banks of the symbolic water of our reading where there is sustenance to satisfy all hunger. Jesus offers that fish he has prepared for us, a sign that the water will renew us, that water where the disciples hauled in their bountiful catch after a night of failure.

We are like those disciples, returning to the beach empty, yet instructed by Jesus to “try over there” and  so, despondently, we cast our nets. Lo, and behold, our nets are so full we can barely handle them. There Jesus greets us with a meal to feed a now happy people,  people who had once been about to give up on their enterprise.

I suppose this is Shute’s problem, that he never cast his net the final time. None of his characters were willing to cast out once again. Our contemporary ecological warriors have yet to reach that point, for they are still working with their nets to save the planet.

Jesus invites us to his banquet, it is not a place where “the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper”. On the contrary, Jesus encourages us to bang away on the drum of hope, that beat which calls all to march to the Kingdom. Whimpering does not have a place on this beach, a beach where there is hope, a beach where there is generosity.

Come to the beach, Jesus says, sit down with me and share this marvellous banquet. On the beach we will want to talk of many things with whoever is there, perhaps even to speak with the walrus, that beach to which we will all find our way eventually. – The poetry of song and hymns reveal images of the beach, the banks of Jordan, looking across the glassy sea and so many more. That tumid water is at the beach, and so is the fish, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.

Amen

Third Sunday of Lent

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.

Amen

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.

Amen

Readings

Old Testament

The word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:  “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.”

But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”

Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. He also said to him, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”

But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, how can I know that I shall gain possession of it?” So the LORD said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”

Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away. As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.

When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking brazier with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates.“

Genesis 15.1-12,17-18 

Psalm 

1    The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear?
The Lord is the strength of my life;
of whom then shall I be afraid?

2    When the wicked, even my enemies and my foes,
came upon me to eat up my flesh,
they stumbled and fell.

3    Though a host encamp against me,
my heart shall not be afraid,
and though there rise up war against me,
yet will I put my trust in him.

4    One thing have I asked of the Lord
and that alone I seek;
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,

6    For in the day of trouble
he shall hide me in his shelter;
in the secret place of his dwelling shall he hide me
and set me high upon a rock.

8    Therefore will I offer in his dwelling an oblation
with great gladness;
I will sing and make music to the Lord.

9    Hear my voice, O Lord, when I call;
have mercy upon me and answer me.

10    My heart tells of your word, ‘Seek my face.’
Your face, Lord, will I seek.

16    I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.

17    Wait for the Lord;
be strong and he shall comfort your heart;
wait patiently for the Lord.

Psalm 27

Epistle

Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!

Philippians 3.17-4.1

Gospel

Some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.” He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Luke 13.31-35

Sermon on Third Sunday of Lent

“The Promised Land” – don’t we, just like Abram, look forward to it? Don’t we expend all our energy to get there?

But just where is “The Promised Land”? What is it? Is it our own home? What about the office I run? How about winning the lottery? Or do you want to transform the dark satanic mills into a green and pleasant land? Just how do you go about reaching “The Promised Land” for yourself?

A few weeks ago, I mentioned Søren Kierkegaard who wanted people to find “The Promised Land” for themselves, but his paradise had nothing to do with possessions or power, his “Promised Land” comprised ‘becoming oneself in an ethical and religious sense’. Don’t we all want to become our authentic selves? But how do we conceive our ownmost self? If we follow the philosopher, we would tread a path on our own like the hermit, or in company, perhaps, like the monks of the golden age of christianity, but never as one amongst the herd, dictated to by the mass of humanity who may not have any idea of a moral life. After all, as faithful christians, don’t we have such a very different idea of what is good?

I do not wish to talk of this thorny philosophical problem of the good, but I want to take a theological turn. I want to think how “The Promised Land” awaits us.

Paul could start us on our way, echoing the questions I began with, for he writes, “Their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things.” This is such a trite saying! We all know its veracity – we all know that following the appetites alone will make us self-destruct. The Church universal has been preaching about this for millennia.

The glutton, the harpie, the lustful – they all come to sticky ends, don’t they. They do not enter “The Promised Land” as far as I know. And don’t we all agree with Paul that “Their destiny is destruction”? We hope for a better end than one constricted by fleshly desires, one without the expansive nature of the love of others, but, more significantly, without the infinite vision of the love of God in our lives. We here and now look towards our trinitarian aspiration, the goal of faith, hope and love.

Paul has written that our citizenship is “of heaven” and so the faithful is utterly different to those whose citizenship is “of the earth”. Those whose lives are bounded only by the horizon of self, its earthly expression in the appetites of the flesh, miss so much. Those marks of life in all its fullness are indelibly imprinted on our nature – faith hope and love do not delineate an earthly way of life, as we are reminded every day by many around us. No one lives a life of faith, hope and love amongst our contemporaries outside the universal Church, do they?

Who would you say really forms all his or her actions on faith? We certainly don’t hope all the time, do we? And what about the love we show? I think, normally in the life we ordinarily lead, we often fall short of those three goals. I am sure I have not trusted enough; I certainly do give up hope on occasion; and I do not love without some selfish desire. My christian love, my agape, certainly fails when I think of so many things in this life – for instance, Brexit, knife crime, the rising cost of  living. Amongst those concerns, loving our neighbour is so very hard. Most believe that ethical and religious stance of the philosopher is impossible to take, but more tellingly it is found to be and called “ridiculous”. No one takes the philosopher’s exhortation to a moral, religious life seriously, because all they want is to eat, drink and be merry.

I think it is precisely that ethical goal which Kierkegaard extolled, it is the final end of which the prophets preached, where righteousness flows like the waters and justice like an ever-flowing stream. Heaven is that garden where the rushing waters are the background of all conversation. The promised land is this paradise to which we aspire.

The garden of paradise is not Monty Don’s. Beautiful as it is, it is nothing but flowers and rills. Paradise is where we contemplate amongst the rushing waters, that constant background on which all our deliberations find themselves, justice and righteousness. A background amongst which we find the tree of life, a place which is ever-changing, never static, demanding our concentration. So, even when we find ourselves in paradise, our promised land, I would say, we are still being challenged, but the distraction is not the venal and earthly of Paul’s condemnation, but it is the demanding insistence of goodness.

I would not call that a hard life, not like the future Adam and Eve were given, when the enmity of nature in the form of the serpent would always strike at our heels. No, that life in paradise does not have the distractions we have today, the distractions of Brexit, knife-crime and the rising cost of living. The background noise of Paradise is one of remembering what is good, its rushing sound ever tumbling over us with the love of God humming in our ears, a sound which turns our attention away from ourselves and towards that infinite Other.

We understand Paradise as where we are whole, where we find life in all its fullness. Adam and Eve, like you and I, want to return there, where the water flowed in four directions and fruit was to hand, so near that all our needs were fulfilled and we should spend our time with the prophets gaining insight into justice and righteousness which are to be enacted in the very core of our existence.

Instead, sadly, we conceive our lives like everyone around us, full of toil and dismay, where the letter of the law has fettered us to something, rather than freeing us for God. Our lives here are exactly delineated by political considerations. We are constrained by the herd around us, listening to the bleating of sheep, not hearing the cascade of righteousness or the tumbling of justice over the whole of our lives.

Do those sheep ever have a moment to themselves when they are standing with Kierkegaard on that edge where we must leap for our very selves? Or do they turn away from such decisions?

We read “Some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, ‘Leave this place and go somewhere else.’” The worldly see their end as a place, not a fulfilment of life in all its fullness. Jesus retorts that he is going to heal the sick and make the lame dance, that the hungry will be fed and the world’s order be turned on its head. He promises he will reach his goal – and in this context we say that Jesus will find himself in paradise with the thief.

How bitter the path which leads to Paradise! Jesus’ travels to Jerusalem, as he laments because of what her people have done.

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Paradise is not Jerusalem itself, as Jesus shows. Paradise is the outpouring love of neighbour. That faithful hope is so absurd to so many. Maybe that is why the golden age of any culture is so far distant either in the past or in the future that no one pays it any attention. Everyday concerns oppress us because we lack the focus for the long game, the life of loving one another. There are no concrete rewards to love, are there?

Jesus invites us on to that lonely road which leads through another garden, Gethsemane, before we see the promised land.

I think, there dwell those virtues of faith, hope and love. They find their expression in the promised land, and we only know them when we live life in all its fullness – in Paradise.

Amen

First Sunday after Easter

Collect

Almighty Father, you have given your only Son to die for our sins and to rise again for our justification: grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness that we may always serve you in pureness of living and truth; through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ 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, for whom no door is locked, no entrance barred: open the doors of our hearts, that we may seek the good of others and walk the joyful road of sacrifice and peace, to the praise of God the Father.

Prayer After Communion 

Lord God our Father, through our Saviour Jesus Christ you have assured your children of eternal life and in baptism have made us one with him: deliver us from the death of sin and raise us to new life in your love, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Readings 

Acts 

Having brought the apostles, the captain of the temple guard and his officers made them appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”

Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than men! The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead—whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Saviour that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”

Acts 5.27–32 

Psalm 

14    The Lord is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation.

15    Joyful shouts of salvation
sound from the tents of the righteous:

16    ‘The right hand of the Lord does mighty deeds;
the right hand of the Lord raises up;
the right hand of the Lord does mighty deeds.’

17    I shall not die, but live
and declare the works of the Lord.

18    The Lord has punished me sorely,
but he has not given me over to death.

19    Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter and give thanks to the Lord.

20    This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through it.

21    I will give thanks to you, for you have answered me
and have become my salvation.

22    The stone which the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.

23    This is the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvellous in our eyes.

24    This is the day that the Lord has made;
we will rejoice and be glad in it.

25    Come, O Lord, and save us we pray.
Come, Lord, send us now prosperity.

26    Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord;
we bless you from the house of the Lord.

27    The Lord is God; he has given us light;
link the pilgrims with cords
right to the horns of the altar.

28    You are my God and I will thank you;
you are my God and I will exalt you.

29    O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his mercy endures for ever.

Psalm 118 

Epistle 

John, to the seven churches in the province of Asia:

Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen. Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen.

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”

Revelation 1.4–8 

Gospel 

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

John 20.19–31

Sermon on First Sunday after Easter

Today is what is called “Low Sunday” – Why? Why do we call it that? It is the first Sunday in the larger season of Easter, the first Sunday after the Feast of the Resurrection. So why do we call it “low”? Surely we should still be flying “high” after our exertions of last weekend!

Or – are we deflated precisely because of the festivities of last weekend? All the liturgical activity of Holy Week and Easter? Are we exhausted because of our Lenten fast? Do we need to recover from the excesses of the feast we have just had?

Or – does nothing live up to the excitement and expectations aroused by Holy Week and Easter? Are we “low” because nothing in this life matches what we ultimately want?

Or is there a more prosaic reason? Perhaps because this is the weekend that priests have often taken as one of their “away days” and disappeared to some quiet cove to recover from the rigours of the last seven weeks. There may also be another reason – the congregations are very small – so perhaps we should amend the appellation to “Low Attendance Sunday”? These are not very profound reasons for this name, though.

Perhaps we should look to the readings we have been given for today to find an explanation for the very odd name for this Sunday. We learn that the disciples were all hiding away in their dark corner of the world, behind locked doors and fearfully cowering. They must have been terrified. They are feeling so very low after all that happened during that final week. Before all the appearances of Jesus, they skulked away hoping no one will come near them.

Are they embarrassed because of their hopes, their hopes which are now dashed by that horrible death Jesus underwent at the hands of Romans and Jews? Are they ashamed because they believed a man who spoke so eloquently of the Kingdom of God and now are bereft of his teaching – but, more importantly, they are lost without him? Are they mourning the death of such a dear, saintly man, that prophetic man, the man they reckoned the Messiah? Now are they low and depressed because all that happened in that last week has resulted in nothing?

Maybe it is all of this in some sort of combination within each one of us. The departure of the priests after their exertions of Holy Week, like the departure of the disciples to that darkened room, signify human weakness doesn’t it? We all feel deflated after Holy Week. We all need a rest, and so everyone – priests and their congregations – has taken time off. What could be more natural?

However, I don’t think this is natural behaviour for the faithful in any way. We have to be energised – after all, we are life in all its fullness. – Why, then, should we ever experience a “Low Sunday”?

You might say that nowadays we are enjoined by all around us to “feel the moment” to experience our emotions to the highest degree. To let go of all our inhibitions and let fly. I think this is an inheritance from the hippies, that generation of people just before mine, those people who turned on, tuned in and dropped out of the workaday world where there is only drudgery, hoping that the love they freely shared would be the one thing in their lives – apart from the drugs which only enhanced that engaged attitude. And my generation is not millennial, either, that generation which wants everything that they want – right now! Both of those generations live in a single moment of self-absorption.

But is that really what christianity – or any religion – is all about? Don’t we religious people calm everything down so that the peace of God which passes all understanding moves from one person to the next? We don’t go from the highs of festivals to the lows of this “Low Sunday”, do we? No, we are enthused to such a degree that there is no difference between Easter and any other ordinary (or holy) day during the year – every day is a day that the Lord has made – just for us. We treat them all the same, I hope. Every day is one of infinite splendour in which we live and move and have our being. How could any day be otherwise when we have the hope of ultimate salvation before us? How can anyone who has that hope be other than calm and open to everything – full of the joy of Easter and anticipating a Kingdom beyond all price?

That experience of living to the fullest does not raise us up so high that we have to crash to earth again. No, that lived experience is the fullness of the present, the presence of God, I would say. We are grounded in life in all its fullness. How can we have anything but an extraordinary attitude to all creation?

The faithful have been enjoined to “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” by Jesus in response to Thomas’ being of two minds. That is the meaning of Doubting Thomas, that all possibilities are of equal weight but we are burdened by them. Is that why we are here on Low Sunday? We like Thomas have our doubts about everything, don’t we? That is the reason, I think, Thomas is such an important figure linguistically for us. Everyone knows of this Thomas, don’t they? We, in fact, see ourselves as Thomas, don’t we? After all, we all have our doubts.

But Thomas is given this opportunity to put himself in Jesus’ place, isn’t he? With those words, Jesus is inviting us to an intimacy we can share with no other, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side.” Jesus is asking Thomas to take his place – whatever that is – and live the fullest of lives. That intimacy with Jesus, to put his hands in Jesus’ hands and in his side is not anything anyone would ordinarily do, is it? We do not embrace the dead ordinarily. But, imagine being invited to embrace the executed body of a man convicted of the most heinous of religious crimes! Imagine being asked to an intimacy of that sort. Would we be bold to say, as Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

Probably not. Maybe that is why we call this Sunday, “Low Sunday” – because we do not have the courage of our faith, because we are in two minds all the time. We must remember Thomas for all the right reasons. He is the cornerstone of our faith, we “who have not seen and yet have believed.” If, in spite of all of his grave doubts, he is able to greet the Christ with that expostulation of faith, “My Lord and my God!” and evangelise the ends of the earth. Why shouldn’t we be just as faithful as well?

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.

Amen

Readings

Old Testament

This is what the LORD says –
he who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, who drew out the chariots and horses, the army and reinforcements together, and they lay there, never to rise again, extinguished, snuffed out like a wick: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland. The wild animals honour me, the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the desert and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen, the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise.“

Isaiah 43.16–21

Psalm

1    When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
then were we like those who dream.

2    Then was our mouth filled with laughter
and our tongue with songs of joy.

3    Then said they among the nations,
‘The Lord has done great things for them.’

4    The Lord has indeed done great things for us,
and therefore we rejoiced.

5    Restore again our fortunes, O Lord,
as the river beds of the desert.

6    Those who sow in tears
shall reap with songs of joy.

7    Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed,
will come back with shouts of joy,
bearing their sheaves with them.

Psalm 126

Epistle

If others think they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 3.4b–14

Gospel

Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honour. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “[It was intended] that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.“

John 12.1–8

Sermon on Passion Sunday

The short commentary we have been given about the Epistle reads: ‘Paul has been captured by Jesus. The things that stood him in good stead in the past are now valueless. “Christ Jesus has made me his own.”’ I wonder if we can say the same for ourselves.

But I have a lot of questions – What does it mean that Paul has been captured by Jesus? Has he been whisked away by one of those cults which secrete their members in a remote location, never to be seen by family or friends in the world? Or –

Is this a general orientation to the figure of Jesus? Perhaps as at that time an assent to the deities of the nation, that pinch of incense devoted to the image of the divine emperor? Is it this devotion? Is this adoration? Is this obsession? Or is it brainwashing?

Our brief commentary says this capturing is a fact in Paul’s life, apparently “Christ Jesus has made me his own.” However, in our passage, in our translation, Paul never says this. Rather our translation reads,

I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.

He reiterates that he approaches Christ –

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Much like Wesley in his hymn, Amazing Grace, Paul feels like he has been recovered from the wreckage of life so that he can live in all its fullness. There is no capturing in this, is there? It is always an approaching towards Jesus, never a possession as such. It is a laying claim to Paul, but I don’t think this has anything to do with any sort of possession of the person. Even the story of the Damascus Road does not describe an overwhelming of Paul so that he is subsumed by Christ, rather it is a calling out of himself. “Saul, why do you persecute me?” Is this the interrogation of a controlling deity? Does this God deny the individual for the sake of His own caprice?

I don’t think so.

Something has changed dramatically in Paul’s life. Instead of the Law being a guarantee of salvation, a way leading one through righteousness action, instead of the Law promising a full life, Paul no longer sees himself a Pharisee devoted to the jots and tittles of the Law, but he is on a royal road, a way that leads to a full life, one in which love fills everything – where the Spirit blows were it wills. This is a radically new life, not a possessed one, nor is life now restricted by a formal legalism.

In Isaiah we hear “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!” This is what Paul is telling us about.  And Paul concurs with Isaiah’s words, “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Paul used to consider himself perfectly adapted to life within the tribe.

Circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.

Paul had been a man who had bound up his life in the Torah. He was a Pharisee among the Pharisees. He had lived a perfectly faultless life in terms of Jewish legalism. He had a zeal which persecuted those who were different to him and his tribe.

In other words, Paul considered himself a model Jew by even the strictest of the orthodox, the Pharisees. What could possibly take him away from such a standing in his community? What would make Paul turn his back on everything he had known? Why did he abandon his past?

These are the usual questions we ask at any conversion, aren’t they? These are the evidence our evangelical brothers and sisters demand of anyone struck by the Spirit, aren’t they? How can I be a true believer if I still am interested in the model railways I used to play with as a child? I wonder, do we ever really turn our back on our lives so completely that they are to be “counted as loss” when “compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ”? Why would I consider my past as “rubbish”?

This is conversion of the most radical kind, conversion which is the stuff of legend, the stuff of the origin of our faith. The past is just that – done and dusted. However, we do carry it with us, even if we could consider it “rubbish”. Such detritus points us forward. Just like Paul, I am going on to something of “surpassing greatness”. What is the Law when compared with the knowledge of Christ, a saviour who has given his body and blood for my very own salvation? The letter of the Law, Paul says, is nothing.

Elsewhere Paul speaks about the Law yielding death. The Law does not give life, does it? Paul also speaks of the letter and the spirit of the Law, something our own legal system should consider (but that is another discussion). The Law entangles a person in what we would call red tape. Others would call it causuistry, legalistic scholasticism. The medieval period called it arguing about how many angels could stand on the head of a pin.

Paul, however, cuts through all that constricting entanglement. He has seen a freedom in the Spirit, that which has given him life in all its fullness, life which was purchased through the death of Jesus, whom Paul proclaims as the saviour of the world.

All those things he had – those things which ritually guaranteed righteousness – he now considers all that ritual perfection as rubbish. Why? Now he has an inner life so very different from the external legalism of his past. Now he is looking forward to a future, that new country.

I honestly don’t think Paul did change that much. I think he did change radically, but I don’t think he lost his devotion to the Law, but the revolution was that his Law of jots and tittles became a Law of love – the Law of faith which freed him for the service of others, a Law which disentangled him from the shackles that the past too often clamps around the human being. Paul prescribes a new spirit to the Law, because his Law does not grasp and control, rather the Law which Paul now knows is one which frees for the future, a Law which we should fulfill.

Amen 

Sunday Before Lent

Collect

Almighty Father, whose Son was revealed in majesty before he suffered death upon the cross: give us grace to perceive his glory, that we may be strengthened to suffer with him and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Holy God, you know the disorder of our sinful lives: set straight our crooked hearts, and bend our wills to love your goodness and your glory in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Holy God, we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ: may we who are partakers at his table reflect his life in word and deed, that all the world may know his power to change and save. This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the LORD. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and he spoke to them. Afterwards all the Israelites came near him, and he gave them all the commands the LORD had given him on Mount Sinai. When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face. But whenever he entered the LORD’S presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the LORD.

Exodus 34.29-35

Psalm

1    The Lord is king: let the peoples tremble;
he is enthroned upon the cherubim: let the earth shake.

2    The Lord is great in Zion
and high above all peoples.

3    Let them praise your name, which is great and awesome;
the Lord our God is holy.

4    Mighty king, who loves justice,
you have established equity;
you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.

5    Exalt the Lord our God;
bow down before his footstool, for he is holy.

6    Moses and Aaron among his priests
and Samuel among those who call upon his name,
they called upon the Lord and he answered them.

7    He spoke to them out of the pillar of cloud;
they kept his testimonies and the law that he gave them.

8    You answered them, O Lord our God;
you were a God who forgave them
and pardoned them for their offences.

9    Exalt the Lord our God
and worship him upon his holy hill,
for the Lord our God is holy.

Psalm

Epistle

Since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.

2 Corinthians 3.12-4.2

Gospel

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, ‘Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It throws him into convulsions until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.’ Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.’ While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.

Luke 9:28-43

Sermon on the Sunday Before Lent

Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?’

To whom did Jesus address these words? The man whose boy was afflicted had spoken to Jesus, complaining about the powerlessness of his disciples, but is Jesus berating him? Or, more distressingly, is Jesus complaining to and about his impotent disciples? Does Jesus really condemn the innocent man who sought a miracle for his child? Or does Jesus castigate his own disciples?

How faithless or faithful every generation is, has been a theme in our readings for the last few weeks. It is a theme throughout the OT. Naturally it comes into the NT as a theme in all the miracle stories, as well as being the background theme in all the gospels and in Paul’s letters.

I wonder whether there is some sort of  correlation between the ancient Hebrews who were with Moses and the contemporaries of Jesus. Were so many hardhearted or faithfully perverse? Were their minds so dim that they could not understand the commandments the prophets preached in their own times? What about our own generation?

However, I wonder, is Paul’s interpretation of the events around Moses right? And if it is misleading, has the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church been off course for such a long time?

The Exodus reading tells us that Moses put the veil over his face because his face shone with a light unknown, a brilliance the people of God had not seen before. Paul accepts that Moses did use the veil when he departed from the presence of God. But I think, in this case, he interprets the veil to have a different significance than the literal given in the text.

Instead of shielding the people of Israel from something so very different to the normal course of events – in that world where people’s faces don’t shine with a divine light – Paul suggests that Moses veiled his face because the light was fading from his visage, and then interprets the veil as a simile to the state of mind abroad in Israel, that they were ignorant of God’s wisdom, just as the people surrounding Paul were obtuse, that God was fading in Israel.

I think Paul’s is a dangerous interpretation overall, though it is true there is a hardheadedness among Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries, even among the disciples. I think that is why Jesus rounded upon everyone at times – he even turns on us here today, if we take the biblical readings as our own, written for and to us.

Jesus had the same experience as Moses, didn’t he? He talked with God on the mountaintop and in quiet places. Our gospel reading tells us that he was dazzling white on the mountaintop. The messengers of God were with him on the summit – Moses and Elijah were his companions on that holy place. It was another light unknown, a  light seen by these befuddled fisherman who had just been cowering in their boat when the storm raged.

On the mountain, the cloud descended. Chaos and darkness reigned in the hearts of those favoured disciples on the mountain-top with Jesus. I would like to say, a veil over the scene was drawn with that cloud. There was a very strange darkness, they had no light to see their way.

I wonder whether any of you have been on a mountain when the mists rolled down, when you could only see where to place your feet. I can tell you, this is a most frightening event, one that even experienced climbers fear. The fog descends like a thick blanket on the mountain and everything is hushed, everything is hidden. No one is sure about anything in that white darkness. Fear grasps the soul and nothing is comprehended.

This cloud descending is just like that veil which was drawn over Moses’ face. Both stories are about fear in the face of divine light – the light which emanated from the faces of the great prophets like Moses and Elijah, and now Jesus becomes one of that number.

We know that we are transformed at times, don’t we? When we are in the first flush of love, it does change us. We see the world in a new light, and everyone around us does notice a new person in front of them. This is a very simple example, and a transient one. The change, however,  is not permanent, is it? The young love fades to a comfortable love, and sometimes even into a stale love. Yes, our human love can fail. There are too many examples of that. Divorce seems to prove that. We do know that human love can pass away, even though in the first flush, it seems nothing can assail it. That love can just become everyday and no longer dazzling.

But imagine someone whose love never fades, someone who is passionate throughout all of life. Don’t we all put a veil over that person because we are ashamed at our own lukewarm love?

Such a changed person is Moses and Jesus is the wholly transformed person, for he is completely human and completely divine. We address him as “My Lord and my God!” This is something wholly other to human experience. No wonder the ancient Jews had to be protected from the divine radiance with the veil! No wonder the clouds came down on the disciples. We always veil the sacred in our lives, sometimes making it invisible.

Paul is right in that something has happened on each of the mountaintops. However, I don’t think the event warrants a condemnation of humanity. We are too often benighted, and we need to see the light for what it is.

Who today can view God and not be transformed? Can your face remain dull and lifeless after you have been in the presence of the divine? Moses and Jesus were utterly transformed, weren’t they? Moses face glowed with a divine glow, Jesus became dazzling bright. Aren’t we changed when we show ourselves to be followers of Jesus, that we are utterly different from the mass of humanity because we love one another, we become neighbours all, on the street and on the globe, every person you meet on your way in the world.

We do not appear like the mass of humanity, because our lives shine so very differently, so let us not put a veil over them.

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.

Amen

Prayer after 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.

Amen

Readings 

Old Testament

When the LORD God made the earth and the heavens – and no shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth and no plant of the field had yet sprung up, for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no man to work the ground, but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground – the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground – trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field. But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’, for she was taken out of man.” For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.

Genesis 2.4b-9,15-25

Psalm

1    Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion;
to you that answer prayer shall vows be paid.

2    To you shall all flesh come to confess their sins;
when our misdeeds prevail against us,
you will purge them away.

3    Happy are they whom you choose
and draw to your courts to dwell there.
We shall be satisfied with the blessings of your house, even of your holy temple.

4    With wonders you will answer us in your righteousness, O God of our salvation,
O hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas.

5    In your strength you set fast the mountains
and are girded about with might.

6    You still the raging of the seas,
the roaring of their waves
and the clamour of the peoples.

7    Those who dwell at the ends of the earth
tremble at your marvels;
the gates of the morning and evening sing your praise.

8    You visit the earth and water it;
you make it very plenteous.

9    The river of God is full of water;
you prepare grain for your people,
for so you provide for the earth.

10    You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges;
you soften the ground with showers and bless its increase.

11    You crown the year with your goodness,
and your paths overflow with plenty.

12    May the pastures of the wilderness flow with goodness
and the hills be girded with joy.

13    May the meadows be clothed with flocks of sheep
and the valleys stand so thick with corn
that they shall laugh and sing.

Psalm 65

Epistle

I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne. Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. Before the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God. Also before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal. In the centre, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and behind. The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings. Day and night they never stop saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” Whenever the living creatures give glory, honour and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and  honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”

Revelation 4

Gospel

Jesus said to his disciples, “Let’s go over to the other side of the lake.” So they got into a boat and set out. As they sailed, he fell asleep. A squall came down on the lake, so that the boat was being swamped, and they were in great danger. The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!” He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm. “Where is your faith?” he asked his disciples. In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.”

Luke 8.22-25

Sermon on the Second Sunday before Lent

In our Collect we pray, “teach us to discern your hand in all your works and your likeness in all your children”. Why? Why do we need this reminder that we ought to see God everywhere? After all, ‘Day and night they never stop saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.”’ Along with all these angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven, we ourselves will acclaim the thrice holy Lord later as we approach our sacrament.

In a meeting about computing last week, we were addressed by someone who works with people who have forgotten so much of who they are, as they have forgotten to discern what is round about them, they suffer from isolation, depression and sometimes jump into suicide to end it all.

Too many have not been empathetic to those who have suffered in this way. They thunder, “Snap out of it,” or something else equally hurtful and turn away from the problem which has just been recognised. You might even say Jesus was just as bad when he was woken from his sleep to find his disciples distraught with the storm raging around their small boat. “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!” they cried in their fear and trembling at the force of nature railing against them. He turned to his disciples after rebuking the wind to a gentle breeze and the raging sea to a millpond, with these words, “Where is your faith?”

“Where is your faith?” What does Jesus mean by that? Why does he ask that? If you had been scared witless, what would you make of Jesus asking you that question? I suppose we should begin this story again and place ourselves in it, but this time with our own real experience of life.

We often fear as if our ship is sinking, don’t we? We are lost in the midst of bills and calls on our time, or the demands of our work, or those of family and friends arrayed around us. We often cry out so loud that we lose our voices and we remain silenced in cocoons of our own isolation and depression. We can be absolutely confused and at the point of despair. We are on the edge of the abyss which glares directly into our souls with its utter blackness. Winston Churchill’s “black dog” viciously growls and circles us. Standing in terror before that void, we cannot call out because we have been silenced in the world we inhabit. No longer do we sing out with others, “Holy, holy, holy…” This, I think, is the picture of where we stand in the pitch blackness of our worlds. We feel isolated, don’t we? We complain that no one listens, that no one understands. We withdraw ourselves from that uncomprehending world and things get impossibly darker. And – in the midst of these raging storms of life, we are supposed to have faith! How? How can I be faithful in the midst of the vortex of emptiness around me?

Yet the words of Jesus still accuse “Where is your faith?” What can I answer? This question attacks everyone at the brink of the abyss, just as they did the philosopher Kierkegaard when he stood looking at the blackness surrounding him. He considered

the literary, philosophical, and ecclesiastical establishments of his day [were] misrepresenting the highest task of human existence — namely, becoming oneself in an ethical and religious sense — as something so easy that it could seem already accomplished even when it had not even been undertaken. …[T]he heart of his work lay in the infinite requirement and strenuous difficulty of religious existence in general.

It could be said two hundred years after him we feel betrayed by everything around us. In this country many are confronted by a system which misrepresents what life is all about. In the online world, for instance, life is supposed to be so easy and yet there are so many disillusioned because that life does not deliver itself in all its fullness even though they are pursuing the promised haven electronically. They teeter on the edge of  the pit of cyberspace where hope just disappears into a mass of zeros and ones.

Those words Jesus asked the terrified disciples, “Where is your faith?” should confront us all still. Faith, however, is imponderable – there is no one experience which encapsulates it. Everyone’s conscience should be pricked so that light should shine, it may the brightness of the sun or only be the tiny LED from a miniature fairy light, but in the darkness of our present despair it should shine like a beacon. When we open our eyes to see, that light will guide.

When that light shines, the darkness has been cleaved apart. We then can see what is before us, that perceived pit is paved over. The light opens up what life really is – hope and charity. This enlightenment is unexpected when it comes, especially in our dark despair, when we are isolated and alone, buried in complications. That light guides us away from the confusion of the everyday, and we do see that life is not the lottery win or the any one thing, but life is the world we create through meaning and engagement. The storm passes at that moment. ‘In fear and amazement [the disciples in the boat and we ourselves] ask one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.”’

Everything has been turned upside down yet again. Life may not make any sense, but we can see our way through the tapestry of the life we are weaving. How did the winds and water which swirled around us to overcome us now dissipate?

I think we would all accept that when we begin to see things clearly we would say the miraculous has come, or when we can battle with equanimity against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune to end them, when that blackness has become multi-coloured because of the light. At that moment we have the discernment for which we prayed in our Collect to see what is important, what the fullness of life really is. When Jesus asked that question, I think he wanted to wake up the disciples as to where they were and what really constituted their world.

I think Jesus wanted the disciples to see where they were, that they had each other’s strength to struggle through the storm. He may have rebuked the storm, but those fishermen should have realised they had each other to get through the winds and waves. Perhaps not surprisingly, that was the conclusion of that speaker on Wednesday night – the community is all around, if only we would look and see, as hard as that might be. We here are saved with one another in the body and blood of the lamb of God, the gift we must perceive and receive.

Amen