Archives for posts with tag: God

Sermon for Evensong on the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity, 20th October 2019

Nehemiah 8:9-18, John 16:1-11 – http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=438415019

‘What is truth?’ You’ll remember Pontius Pilate’s famous question when Jesus was on trial in front of him, in John 18:38. In the context of our Christian faith, what is ‘truth’?

When Nehemiah had gathered all the exiles, who had returned from Babylon, together, and Ezra the scribe had started to read out all the Law of Moses to them, he made the occasion a great holiday. Nothing was more important than knowing what God had commanded – that was the ultimate truth.

It’s interesting that, as well as decreeing that everyone should take the day off and celebrate – or possibly take longer than the day off, so as to go off on a kind of summer camp and live in tents – or booths, or tabernacles – temporary houses – for a week – that also, as well as feasting themselves, they had to make sure that they sent a share of the food to anyone who couldn’t manage to provide for themselves. The two most important commandments in the Law of Moses were to love God, and also, to love your neighbour as yourself.

So there was a social truth as well as a theological one in the law of the Old Testament. Later on, when Jesus is telling his disciples what to expect when he has finally left them – and indeed, telling them that he has got finally to leave them, which they might not necessarily have expected after the huge miracle of his resurrection, (you could understand them not wanting to let him go) – he says that it is to their advantage, for their good, that he is leaving, because then what he describes as the Comforter, the Advocate, the spirit of truth, will come in his place: truth personified, not just a matter of law. Living truth, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.

What Jesus is saying here, as reported in St John’s Gospel, is one of the first mentions in the Bible of the Holy Trinity. Jesus talks about his father, about his being the son, and then about this third party, the Comforter, the Advocate; somebody who, literally in Greek, shores them up, supports them, perhaps in a forensic context, in court; the Greek word, παρακλητος, sometimes actually said as the ‘Paraclete’, the Comforter, the Advocate, means a sort of barrister: that is how the third member of the Holy Trinity is described.

When I was thinking about that, and about what Jesus says about the Comforter, the Advocate, it reminded me of what I had experienced last Sunday when I went to Rome to attend the mass at St Peter’s for the ‘canonisation’ of five new saints in the Roman Catholic Church, John Henry Newman and four other saintly figures, three nuns and a Swiss seamstress, who all had various claims to ‘sainthood’, as the Roman Catholics understand it.

One of the things that comes out, that the Roman Catholics do that we don’t, is that they use saints as intermediaries between themselves and God. They pray to God through the saints, starting with the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mary, the Mother of God, but also then through one of more of the various saints of the church. So a form of prayer in the Catholic Mass is that you name a particular saint, and you ask that saint to pray for you.

The idea is that the saint is almost like what Jesus is describing the Holy Spirit as, if the Holy Spirit is the Advocate. It involves the idea of somebody who speaks for you. You pray through the saint, you invoke the assistance of the saint. The process of becoming a saint in the Roman Catholic Church involves miracles, to show how close the saint is to God. The person to be canonised as a saint, recognised as a saint, therefore needs to have brought about miracles, miracles which have been investigated and found to be genuine by theologians of the church.

I was in Rome particularly to witness the canonisation of one of the new saints, John Henry Newman, Cardinal Newman, who wrote the hymns ‘Praise to the Holiest in the Height’, and ‘Lead, kindly Light’, for example. He started out in the Church of England and was for 20 years a fellow of my old college at Oxford, Oriel. Eventually he changed to Roman Catholicism and became a Cardinal.

Newman was a leader – perhaps the leader – of the spiritual revival in the Church of England called the Tractarians, or the Oxford Movement, in the 1830s. Newman’s great theological message – and he was a prolific author and preacher – he was the vicar of St Mary’s in the High Street in Oxford, the University Church – the heart of his message was a call to the church to abandon what we might call today ‘relativism’, in favour of what we might describe as revealed truth.

He didn’t want the church to base its beliefs and its teaching on whatever was popularly thought to be ‘a good thing’ at the time, but rather on the truth as shown in God’s word in the Bible and in the teaching of the early Christian Fathers. You can see that sort of argument still alive in the church today, in the context, for example, of things like same-sex marriage.

The story of the Tractarians is a story of exciting spiritual revival in parts of the church. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, in the period between 1820 and 1840, the Senior Common Room of Oriel College contained some of the most influential theologians in England: not only Newman, but also Pusey, Keble and Hurrell Froude, who all supported this powerful revival movement in the Church of England, based on going back to what was perceived to be the message of the early fathers, stripped of any of the superstructure built up over the years by attempts to modernise the church in various ways.

Tractarianism (the name came from their series of pamphlets, called Tracts for the Times) came after the earlier Methodist revival, and in both those revivals there was a strong social message. The Tractarians were great believers in the Christian obligation to care for others, and particularly to care for those less fortunate than themselves.

This was a time when the Tractarians founded new congregations, new churches, in, for example, the East End of London and in some of the downtown slum areas of the big industrial cities. Just as Methodism had attacked the gin houses and encouraged people not to become prey to the demon drink, but rather to be able to keep and save their earnings and become more secure financially, so the Tractarians went out into places and founded churches where posh country parsons would never have dreamed of going.

Two healing miracles are attributed to John Henry Newman, one of Deacon Jack Sullivan in 2001, who was healed in a way that defied a normal medical explanation, and involved prayer invoking John Henry Newman, or rather his memory; and the second miracle involved the healing of an unstoppable haemorrhage in a pregnant American woman in 2013, where the woman, Melissa Villalobos, living near Chicago, had offered a prayer for healing, again invoking John Henry Newman to pray for her, and her bleeding suddenly stopped. These two miracles were considered, by the Roman Catholic Church, to be sufficient evidence of Newman’s sainthood.

We in the Church of England don’t reckon much to the idea of saints: Article XXII of the 39 Articles – on p.620 of your Prayer Books – says that the ‘Romish Doctrine concerning … invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented’, not Biblical and indeed contrary to the word of God.

This reflects the Reformation idea of our not needing to have priests stand between us and God, to pray for us and celebrate the mass on our behalf. By the same token we don’t need to have saints to pray for us. The idea is of a ‘priesthood of all believers’, which came from John Calvin.

But the Church of England is not a wholly Protestant church, although neither is it wholly a Catholic one. Henry VIII wanted to have the best of both worlds. He wanted to uphold all the doctrines of Roman Catholicism, except for the fact that he had some slight local difficulty with the Pope; so instead of the Pope being the head of the church on earth, he arrogated that function to the English monarch. So as it says on our coins, or on some of them, the name of the king or queen is on them and then ‘FD’, or ‘fidei defensor’, defender of the faith, signifying that the monarch is the head of the church on earth. That title started out as a compliment from the Pope for Henry VIII’s support for him against Martin Luther. But after they differed over Henry’s wives, the king kept the title nevertheless.

I have to say that, despite that background, I didn’t think any less of the wonderful service in Rome – there were reckoned to be 50,000 people attending, and we all got the bread of communion. It’s available on YouTube to watch [at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzFObwA79xo], with a gentle but helpful commentary from an American priest. The beautiful illustrated multilingual service book had 125 pages – and everyone, from the Pope and his cardinals downwards, was given one.

In a sense there was a slight flavour of a sporting event – groups of the congregation were cheering on ‘their’ saint as they were canonised – but at bottom it was just a very beautiful Holy Communion service, whose words, and the hymns and their tunes, were familiar to everyone. The music from the choir and organ was beautiful.

Of course the idea of saints performing miracles is very far-fetched to us. But when you saw all those people not going to a football match, but going to church, it was a very happy occasion, when we all felt inspired, caught up in something beyond our own little domestic concerns, something good and wholesome which made us willing to exchange the peace and try to talk to people sitting next to us – all sorts of nationalities, speaking all sorts of languages.

Smiles went a long way – and the fact that the service was in Latin actually helped, because everyone had a little knowledge of some of the words. I was going to use the ‘Kyrie’ as a for-instance – but of course, that’s Greek. But I hope you can see what I mean.

In its basic structure, the wonderful Canonisation Mass was just like our communion service every week here at St Mary’s. It had all the same bits, and only a couple of extras – the ‘Angelus’, Angelus Domini, the Angel of the Lord, the prayer commemorating the angel Gabriel’s coming to Mary, was the most obvious extra bit – but most was word-for-word the same as our service. It made you feel very special, part of a huge family, a huge, warm family. John Henry Newman was truly a saint: and I felt the presence, in that huge crowd, of great comfort; maybe it was even the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. I think it could well have been.

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Sermon for Evensong on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity, 25th August 2019 – Prophetic and Theological Considerations in the Brexit Debate

Isaiah 30:8-21; [2 Corinthians 9] – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=433650150

The first part of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, sometimes known as ‘First Isaiah’, (because scholars think that there were three prophets whose work is collectively known as the Book of the Prophet Isaiah), ‘the first book of Isaiah’, was written in the 8th century BCE. It’s been pointed out that that century was one of the pivotal points in the history of modern civilisation.

It was the time when the Homeric legends, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were first being recited by travelling bards; in the British Isles, Celts, refugees from mainland Europe, were pouring into Cornwall; Egypt was where the most sophisticated culture was, and Assyria (Syria, roughly) was the most powerful imperial power. It was a time of religious stirrings. Zoroaster was born in Persia in about 650BCE. The Upanishads were written in India probably between c. 800 BCE and c. 500 BCE. It was the time of Confucius and Tao in China.

E. H. Robertson has written, ‘Over the whole world the spirit of God stirred the spirit of man. In Judah and Israel, four men spoke in the name of the living God, …’ [ Robertson, E. H., Introduction to J.B. Phillips, 1963, ‘Four Prophets’, London, Geoffrey Bles, p. xxv] These were the four prophets, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Micah. Just as in the middle of the 19th century it was a time of revolutions, and the end of the 20th century it was the beginning of the digital age, this, in the 8th century BCE, was another turning point in human history.

The spiritual narrative of this historic period was supplied, in Israel and Judah, by the four prophets.The great historical event in this period was the fall of Samaria in 732BCE, when the whole of the Northern Kingdom, Syria and Israel was depopulated and turned into Assyrian provinces. It was a great shock to the people of Israel left in the Southern Kingdom, Judah. Her prophets, particularly Isaiah, were finally listened to. ‘The general line taken by the prophets was, trust in God and keep out of foreign alliances.’ [Robertson, p.xxvi]

Our lesson tonight from chapter 30 of First Isaiah is exactly on this point. The prophet is saying that God has told him to tell the Israelites not to make an alliance with the Egyptians. But he complains that they are not taking any notice. How does God communicate with us?

I heard on the radio an absolutely fascinating programme about the fire in York Minster [http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0007pws]. This year, of course, we have had the terrible fire in Notre Dame in Paris, but in July 1984 there was a terrible fire in York Minster, which destroyed the roof of the south transept and caused extensive damage to the magnificent mediaeval Rose window.

Just before the fire, a new Bishop of Durham had been consecrated, David Jenkins. He was an academic theologian in the liberal theological tradition; in other words, he did not hold with a literal interpretation of everything in the Bible. Indeed, he went as far as saying that he didn’t think that the Virgin Birth necessarily literally took place.

When he was consecrated as Bishop of Durham, in York Minster, there was an outcry from some parts of the church; today no doubt it would have been a ‘Twitter storm’, protesting that Bishop Jenkins, Prof. Jenkins, was flying in the face of the traditional beliefs of the church over the previous 2,000 years. Some people went as far as to say that the fire in the Cathedral, in the Minster, which was attributed, by the surveyors who came to examine the wreckage, most probably to a lightning strike, that it was an ‘act of God’, literally, in that God had struck the Minster with lightning and set fire to it, as a way of showing His disapproval of the preferment of David Jenkins to the bishopric of Durham.

Isaiah was prophesying to the Israelites in the Southern Kingdom, Judah, against their making an alliance with Egypt. Judah heeded the prophecy, and did not make an alliance with Egypt. The Israelites were able to build the Temple and live in peace for nearly 100 years.

Now we are perhaps at another pivotal time in history – well, certainly in the history of this country; and perhaps if one includes as a key element in this current historical perspective the rise of populism, this pivotal time affects not only our country, but also the USA and Italy at least. We are noticing changes in our society as a result; there have been increases in nationalism and xenophobia, (with an unhealthy interest in where people have come from), leading to opposition to immigration, which also involves a ground-swell of racism.

In the British manifestation of this wave of populism, in the Brexit debate, there is also an emphasis on sovereignty – ‘take back control’, they say – as well as all the other features of populist politics. So in relation to all this, is there an Isaiah out there speaking to us? A prophetic voice, guiding us in relation to this turbulent time? And if there is, are we listening?

We look at some of the prophetic utterances in the Bible, and wonder if they might also be talking about our present age. Last week’s Gospel reading for instance, in which Jesus asks, ‘Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided father against son and son against father. ..’ [Luke 12:51f.]

Dare I say that Brexit has had very much the same effect? Friends have stopped speaking to each other. Families are divided. Literally billions have been spent on preparing for something which there is no agreement about, either within our population, our Parliament or with our European neighbours; at the same time our hospitals are desperate for resources, our schools, similarly, have often not got enough money for books, and our local authorities can’t afford to fill the potholes – and that’s not saying anything about the need for housing or the closures of our fire stations.

Is this another time when a prophet might say that God is punishing us, or that He may punish us? Revd Dr Jonathan Draper, the General Secretary of Modern Church (which used to be called the Modern Churchmen’s Union), who was the Dean of Exeter, in his conference speech in July, has tried to identify the theological aspects of the Brexit debate. I’ll put a link to his paper on the website with the text of this sermon. [Published written version: https://www.dropbox.com/s/5ees6m98pb25bh9/theology%20after%20brexit%20-%20final.docx?dl=0 – version as delivered: https://www.modernchurch.org.uk/2019/july-2019/1494-how-theology-has-failed-over-brexit]

He says, ‘Our national so-called ‘debate’ on Brexit has exposed deep, damaging, and shocking divisions: divisions that cut across families and friends, divisions that have exposed the raw experience of some of being entirely left out and ignored by the political and ecclesiastical ‘elite’, divisions that pit one part of the nation against others. Without even leaving, a deep and disturbing vein of xenophobia and racism has been exposed and even normalized in our public life.’

He goes on. ’Dr Adrian Hilton wrote ‘A Christian Case for Brexit’ on the website christiansinpolitics.org.uk. … His …. reasons for why Christians should want to be out of the EU [are], he writes, ‘about liberty, democracy, transparency, accountability, and the right to sack those who rule over me’.’ As Dr Draper points out, these are not theological reasons. There is nothing in the Bible to support these reasons.

In relation to the various things we have identified in the Brexit debate, it seems doubtful whether the ‘Christian case’ would in fact elevate ‘liberty, democracy, transparency, accountability, and the right to sack those who rule over me’ over such things as loving one’s neighbour – who, as the Good Samaritan found, might not be of the same nationality – and that anyway there is ‘no such thing as Jew and Greek’ in the Kingdom of God (Galatians 3:28) [https://biblehub.com/kjv/galatians/3.htm]- that nationality is not something which mattered to our Lord; and that political power, democratic or otherwise, wasn’t very important either, in the context of the Kingdom. More important to love (and therefore obey) the Lord your God. ‘Render unto Caesar’, indeed; but in those days democracy was practically non-existent.

Another theologian, Dr Anthony Reddie, has pointed out ‘a rising tide of white English nationalism’ and ‘the incipient sense of White entitlement’; that participants in the Brexit debate seem to have emphasised White English interests to the exclusion of other races and nationalities. Dr Reddie feels that the churches should be speaking out against this. He asks why the churches have not ‘measured Brexit against the standards of justice and equality’, loving God and loving neighbour. Dr Reddie also argues that churches ought to consider ‘not just the rights and wrongs of Brexit, but what it has done to us’. [Quoted in Dr Draper’s written text]

Dr Draper goes on to consider the theology of incarnation, of being the body of Christ, Christ incorporated in His church. It isn’t an individualistic thing. He quotes John Donne’s poem, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’:

Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee.

He also says this.

‘This is not an argument for saying that we ought to stay in the EU. It is an argument for saying that a Christian theology of the Kingdom of God, being all one in Christ, drives us away from things that divide us and towards things that bring us together. … The impulse to unity ought to be strong for Christians. Walls, barriers that divide, theologies that exclude, have no part of the Christian vision.’

Where do we as a church stand in relation to the concept of human rights, for example? Our own MP, who is now the Foreign Secretary, has recently campaigned to abolish the Human Rights Act. This is something which our country adopted by signing up to a European convention – a convention which was actually drafted by English lawyers. Although the European Court of Human Rights is not an EU institution, it is seen, mistakenly, by some Brexit supporters as interference in our country’s sovereignty by the EU. What do we as Christians have to say about this? Surely, at this pivotal point in our national life, it is too important for us to stay silent. How does Brexit square with Jesus’ great human rights challenge at the end of St Matthew’s Gospel? Dr Draper, [in the version of his paper that he delivered], quoted it in this way.

Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’. [Matt. 25: 37-40]”

He went on.

‘And let’s not spiritualise this either. To feed the hungry is a political act; to welcome the stranger is a political act: enacting, embodying the Christian faith is a political act. And sometimes that means not just praying for everyone but taking sides.’

That’s what Dr Draper said to the Modern Church conference. I don’t think Isaiah would have kept quiet either: but would we have heard him?

Sermon for Evensong on the Eighth Sunday after Trinity, 11th August 2019 – Foreboding and Consolation

Isaiah 11:10 – 12:6; 2 Corinthians 1:1-22 (see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=432463430)

This morning Godfrey told us, in his sermon, how he had a feeling of foreboding; that he felt that many things were not going well in the world. There is already too much suffering in the world, and he is afraid that things are going to get much worse. Climate change. Wars, and millions of refugees. Inequality. Desperate poverty in the midst of riches. And yes, Brexit too. How can we be consoled? What is God’s plan? Is there any hope?

Let’s start with some old stuff. About 500 years before the coming of Jesus Christ, the Israelites, God’s chosen people, were in exile, in captivity in Babylon, or spread out, a diaspora throughout the ancient Middle East. But Isaiah prophesied that salvation would come.

‘On that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea.

He will raise a signal for the nations,

   and will assemble the outcasts of Israel,

and gather the dispersed of Judah

   from the four corners of the earth.’

This is a reference to the early history of Israel. Following the death of King Solomon in 933BCE, the kingdom broke into two, the south, that of Judah of which is the capital was Jerusalem, and the north, called Israel, of which the capital was Samaria. 200 years later, the Northern Kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians, and, just over a century later, the Babylonians seized Judah, and deported the people to Babylon. ‘By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept’ (Psalm 137).

In fact, the exile in Babylon only lasted 50 years, because in 538BCE King Cyrus of Persia liberated the Jews.

Some scholars have suggested that this section in the first part of Isaiah’s prophecy looks forward to the coming of the Messiah; and indeed our lesson is just after a famous passage which is usually taken to be a prophecy about the Messiah.

‘…[T]here shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:

And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, … with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth … and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.

And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins.

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; … They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.’ (Isaiah 11:1-9)

There are aspects of the history of Israel which I think we have to be careful about. That one people, one racial group, can be regarded as uniquely chosen by God, as clearly was the understanding in Old Testament times and indeed much later, is now an idea which is perhaps somewhat problematical. Now we think of God as a universal god, as loving everyone in His creation; that God has no favourites.

But let us take it for now that this prophecy is not nationalistic, but it is a vision of God’s Kingdom, a vision of the ideal world. Just as Moses had led the people of Israel out of captivity in Egypt, so there would be a second gathering, to bring them together out of subjection. Maybe indeed it isn’t partial; maybe Isaiah does not exclude the non-Jewish people from his vision of the Kingdom of God. He says,

‘And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.’ (Isaiah 11:12)

An ‘ensign for the nations’, a sign for the nations. ‘Nations’ are the non-Jewish people, the ‘Gentiles’. The Messiah would come, the rod of Jesse. He would bring salvation, and bring the exiles home.

But as well as that ancient prophecy, which brought consolation and hope for the people of Israel in their exile, I want to talk about St Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, to the people living in the important city that joins Achaia, the mainland of Greece which has Athens in it and extends up to Salonica, and the Peloponnese, the bit with the three prongs on the map, that stick down from the southern part of the mainland of Greece. They were living in the time when Isaiah’s prophesies had been fulfilled. The Kingdom, the Messiah, had arrived.

When St Paul was visiting Corinth, Corinth was the administrative centre of the Roman province of Achaia. It is interesting, as it always is with St Paul’s letters, to try to work out what he was in effect answering: what the other side of the picture was. What were the Corinthians doing – the Corinthian Christians, that is – that prompted St Paul to write to them and give them his advice on how to be better Christians? We don’t know. But the advice, which St Paul gave in this first part of his letter, was about sympathy, about consolation in times of distress. It was a message which is very relevant today.

Sympathy is saying, ’I feel your pain’, and it might extend, to some extent, to vicarious suffering; volunteering to accept punishment or suffer pain which would otherwise be inflicted on someone else. Paul’s argument is that God comforts us in all our troubles. In following God in Jesus Christ and being comforted ourselves, we in turn are able to comfort other people in their troubles.

If we have to endure suffering, we are like Christ in that suffering. ‘As the sufferings of Christ abound in us’, said St Paul – but even so, we are consoled, we are comforted, by the way that Jesus triumphed over suffering and death, in his Resurrection. The idea is that that resurrection power, that resurrection consolation, is shared with us as Christians, and so we are able to deal with and withstand any suffering we may undergo.

On the face of it, St Paul has laid out a very neat logical scheme, to show how Christianity ‘works’ to the good of all who believe. Think of Mrs C.F. Alexander’s Christmas carol, ‘Once in Royal David’s City’.

For he is our childhood’s pattern

Day by day like us he grew

He was little, weak and helpless

Tears and smiles like us he knew.

And he feeleth for our sadness

And he shareth in our gladness.’

‘And he feeleth for our sadness; And he shareth in our gladness.’ We sometimes say, about somebody, that we ‘feel for them’; or you might say to somebody, ‘I share your pain’. But in a real sense we don’t.

We can’t literally feel what another person feels. We can’t even be sure that what the other person’s senses perceive is the same as what we perceive. On a rather basic level, we sometimes can’t even agree what colour something is. Some people see yellows as greens, or greens as yellows, for example.

One of the most intriguing questions, that always challenges us, is ‘What does it feel like?’ What does it feel like to fly on Concorde? What does it feel like to drive a Ferrari?

The thing is that somebody who’d done those things could tell you all about them; but really you still wouldn’t know what it felt like. And again, in relation to the idea of suffering in somebody else’s place, that somehow or other you can transfer the suffering, there can’t be a literal way of doing that; but where diseases are concerned, there is of course the mechanism of infection; so to some extent that kind of suffering can be transferred – but that’s not what we are thinking about here.

What if we are on the wrong end of some of the things that the ‘Rod of Jesse’ puts right: if we are poor, if we are humble, if we suffer from someone’s wickedness; if the rich and powerful exploit their position to become richer and more powerful, and make us weaker and poorer. Is there some mechanism for passing on, taking away, those things – those ‘tribulations’?

Suppose somebody sidled up to you and said, ‘Look: you’re poor, and I am rich. Let’s swap places.’ That might be what St Paul had in mind. It’s a bit far-fetched. But let’s explore the idea nevertheless.

It might well help my understanding, my sympathy, to swap places with one of the Foodbank’s clients for a period. They might enjoy living in my nice house and driving my nice car – and of course, feeding my nice cats. Is that what St Paul, effectively, is talking about? That we should be willing to do what Jesus did, to humble ourselves and become servants? I don’t feel your pain. I can’t feel your pain. But is there anything which I can do, to take some of that pain away? I can still ‘put myself in your place’, at least figuratively.

Still thinking about the food bank clients, what types of food do food bank clients eat? Pasta? Or baked beans? But put yourself in their position. What would you like to eat? Surely not just pasta and beans. Actually, poor people like to eat the same stuff that you and I like.

That’s our challenge. I think that’s what St Paul is saying. To the extent that Jesus took upon himself, in some way, the sins of the world, and symbolically, sacramentally, accepted punishment for them, so we should take contemporary ills upon ourselves: the shortages, the injustices, the things that make people hungry.

We should reach out to people who are suffering, and try to take some of that suffering away from them. We can put it alongside what we know of Christ’s suffering, and by sharing it in that way, ‘A trouble shared …’ is at least a trouble halved.

Sermon for Evensong on the Fourth Sunday after Trinity, 14th July 2019

Genesis 32:9-30, Mark 7:1-23 (see https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=430034390)

I could tell you a good story about Jacob and Esau and the beginnings of the nation of Israel: how Jacob cheated his brother Esau, as we heard last week; how he in turn was cheated by Laban, his relative, father of Leah and Rachel, so that eventually Jacob managed to marry both of them: how Jacob in his wandering prospered, again through some sharp practice, this time getting his own back on old Laban. He said Laban could have goats and sheep, provided they had certain markings on them, and Jacob would have the others, although quietly he was making sure that he was breeding only the sheep and the goats that had his markings on.

So Jacob became rich and prospered. Still, his brother Esau was out to get him, for taking away their father’s blessing, his birthright. So Jacob went out with a huge gathering of cattle and various other presents for his brother to appease him, and to make him forgive him.

On the night before he was due to meet his brother, (and both of them were accompanied by private armies), he met a mysterious man, with whom he wrestled all night, and who dislocated his hip for him. He wouldn’t tell Jacob his name, although the mysterious man said that Jacob’s name would not be Jacob any more, but Israel, which means ‘God strove’, or ‘God struggled’, so Jacob deduced that he had had God as his opponent. Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, meaning, ‘the face of God’.

I could tell you all that story; Oh, and I could also mention Jacob’s dream, of the angels ascending and descending a ladder to and from heaven.

In the story there’s a real intimacy between Jacob and God. It doesn’t seem to be particularly the case that God is upholding Jacob because he is a good and moral man – which he clearly isn’t; and even after Jacob has stolen his brother’s birthright, nevertheless his father Isaac, too, seems to treat it as just one of those things. He blesses Jacob and he sends him out to start a family. I could tell you that story.

Or, I could go into the other story today in our Bible readings, about washing one’s hands before you eat, and various other Jewish rules which were not part of the law of Moses, which Jesus condemned as forms of hypocrisy.

The part about washing hands doesn’t translate very well into a modern context, but the other half of the story, where Jesus goes on to tick the Pharisees off for relying on the small print, relying on get-out clauses allowing them to avoid having to do good, to avoid having to care for their parents as it is laid down in the Law of Moses, is something we can easily understand.

Apparently a practice had grown up according to which people could get out of looking after their old Mums and Dads and devoting resources to it, if they had first set aside the bulk of their savings for a sacrifice, or sacrificial offering, to God. This is what was called ‘Corban’.

Whatever was set aside as Corban was no longer available to be used to benefit one’s family, one’s aged parents, and so you were excused from having to look after them.

I could spend a long time teasing out all the various bits of meaning in our two Bible lessons. On one level you might possibly find it edifying, even enlightening; just as you would do, if you were watching a documentary film or going to one of the Art Fund lectures at the Yehudi Menuhin School.

But then I think, an hour or so after you come out of church, you might have a moment of dismay, because those stories just don’t bear on all the important things that are going on in our lives.

What on earth has wrestling with a mystery man in the night, or seeing angels climbing up and down to heaven, got to do with our worries about naval threats in the Gulf of Hormuz, or the unpredictability of Pres.Trump and his refusal to follow the norms of statesmanlike behaviour?

What do Jacob’s wanderings and Jesus’ teaching about hypocrisy really have to say to us in today’s world? Some of it is, on its face, out of date or inappropriate. Our children really ought not to think that Jesus says it’s OK not to wash your hands. (I know it’s about ritual washing, but that’s even further away from real life).

We are worried about knife crime. The terrible murder on the train at East Horsley. It was a shock. It seemed to be something that could have happened to any of us who commute on that line, on our local line to London. What has God got to do with that?

What will happen about ‘Brexit’? Our country has already been greatly diminished in the eyes of the rest of the world and the preparations for Brexit have cost billions. Where will it end?

Austerity, over the last ten years, has not made our economy any stronger. But is has meant that the poorer people in our society are now desperately poor, and food banks are everywhere. Our own food bank will supply over 3,000 food parcels, locally, here in this area, in the next twelve months. What would Jesus say?

During the ITV debate between the two candidates for the Conservative leadership, when one was asked about his Christian faith, he said: “I sometimes pray. I’m like regular Church of England folk: it’s part of my life and my identity, but I don’t think it defines my politics.” [https://twitter.com/churchtimes/status/1149735677430390784?s=21]

Why doesn’t his faith in God define his politics? Is there anything more important? How worrying is that? I’m not concerned about who the politician was or that it was one party or another: this could have been said by almost anyone. But he was an MP, an important person, a minister. Why shouldn’t such an MP’s faith influence his politics?

In the Bible, Jacob could talk to God and lament that he had not followed God’s commandments; but nevertheless God kept faith with him. They had this regular contact. In his dream he saw the angels climbing up and down a ladder, Jacob’s Ladder, into heaven. And God met him at night to wrestle with him. Was that a dream as well? Whatever it was, Jacob felt that he had seen the face of God; he had been close to God.

But we, we don’t seem to experience anything like that. Perhaps like the Pharisees, we’ve become too regimented in our approach to God. Perhaps our prayers are too formulaic. Perhaps we are not open enough to see the face of God any more. Perhaps we’re like that politician. Like the one who said, “I sometimes pray. I’m like regular Church of England folk: it’s part of my life and my identity, but I don’t think it defines my politics.”

When Jesus told the Pharisees not just to go through the motions, not just to follow the rules for the sake of following the rules, I think he could have been talking precisely about the ‘regular Church of England folk’ that this politician said he belonged to. The Pharisees went through the motions, but they didn’t actually do anything. It didn’t ‘define their politics’.

I think what Jesus is teaching us in relation to washing one’s hands and setting aside resources that might have gone to look after your parents, is that this is sham love, and it is no good. Jesus wants us to show risky love, real love, the sort of thing he preached about in his Sermon on the Mount.

The love that Jesus was recommending, going the extra mile, loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, being like the Good Samaritan, is generous love and it’s a love which is not calculating in any way. Paul wrote about it in 1 Corinthians 13. ‘Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant’. It isn’t necessarily love which you can easily afford. It could be like the widow’s mite. Not much, but it could be more than you can easily afford.

But when you do see that kind of giving, giving which does not count the cost, at work, when, (and this seems especially apt today, which is Sea Sunday), when you see the risks that Captain Carola Rackete, the young German sea captain, took in order to rescue refugees in the Mediterranean and take them to a safe port, even though it might result in her going to jail; or more mundanely and closer to home, when you see someone give their entire trolley of purchases from the supermarket to our Foodbank, all for their poor neighbours: it may not be a sensible gift: it may be really extravagant: but it is loving. It is a blessing. A real blessing, and I think we may begin to see the face of God in it.

Just as Jacob was really concerned to be blessed, to have his father’s blessing and then for God to bless him – he said, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me’ – we need to look out for our blessings. If we count our blessings, I am confident that we are going to find, not that we are alone, but that God really is still at work among us.

So may God bless us and keep us, and make His face to shine upon us.

Sermon for Evensong on the 3rd Sunday after Easter, 12th May 2019

Psalm 114, In exitu Israel, Isaiah 63:7-14, Luke 24:36-49 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=424470667

The mountains skipped like rams: and the little hills like young sheep’.

Today is a very sheepy day in the church. Lots of sheep. The Roman Catholics call it Good Shepherd Sunday – and we have followed their nice idea this morning here at St Mary’s.This morning in the Gospel of John, Jesus ticked off the Jews who were clamouring to know if he was the Messiah they were expecting; he ticked them off by saying that, even if he was, they wouldn’t realise: because they weren’t from his flock. He said, ‘But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, ..…

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:

And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish’. [John 10]

The other readings prescribed in the Lectionary this morning included the story of Noah’s Ark; ‘The animals went in two by two; the elephant and the kangaroo’. And the sheep, of course. And there is a piece from Revelation which is a vision of a great multitude standing before the throne of God and ‘before the Lamb’. Behold the Lamb of God.

And in other parts of the Bible there is the parable of the lost sheep, and Jesus’ rather enigmatic saying to Peter, when, in response to Peter’s three denials of Jesus earlier, he had asked Peter three times how much he loved him, and, after Peter had assured him he did, Jesus answered each time, ‘Feed my lambs’, or, ‘Tend my sheep’ [John 21:15-18]. And there is the vision of the Last Judgement in Matthew 25, with Jesus separating people into two groups, ‘as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats’.

Sheep are good and goats are bad, according to this. It reflects the Jewish idea of the scapegoat, sacramentally loading the sins of some people on to the back of some poor goat, which is then cut loose to roam in the desert till it dies of hunger and thirst.

I’m sure you can think of other sheep references. The idea of a sacrificial animal, a scapegoat, is a very old one in Judaism. Actually, of course, they seem to have mixed up sheep and goats quite a lot. The ‘lamb of God’, the sacrificial lamb, is effectively a scapegoat, a goat: the idea is that Jesus is that scapegoat, that, as we say, in the Prayer of Consecration in the Communion service (page 255 in your Prayer Books), he ‘made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world’.

The vision of the New Jerusalem which our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah shows, is in line with this.

‘Surely they are my people, children that will not lie: so he was their Saviour.

In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old’ (Isaiah 63.8-9).

Then the prophet recalls the story of the Exodus from Egypt. God must have been infinitely powerful, in order to part the waters of the Red Sea and let the Israelites pass through on dry land. It is the same thing that our Psalm, Psalm 114, celebrates. ‘When Israel came out of Egypt’. All these miraculous things happened. The sea ‘saw that, and fled’; ‘The mountains skipped like rams: and the little hills like young sheep’.

All this is meant to prepare us for the greatest miracle of all, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. So when he appears to the disciples in Luke’s account, he stresses that what has happened to him is just as it was foretold by the Jewish prophets. The author of the Gospel, Luke, is usually taken to be a doctor – St Paul described him as (Col. 4:14), ‘the beloved physician’. He is a scientist; his Gospel tends to look for objective facts as well as metaphysical theology. So here, in this resurrection appearance, Jesus does a re-run of the Doubting Thomas story. See me, touch me, feel me. I am not a ‘spirit’, not a ghost.

And there’s this rather curious eating ‘broiled’ fish and, if you can believe it, ‘honeycomb’. You remember, the Gospel says, ‘And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb. And he took it, and did eat before them.’ Now the ‘broil’ isn’t some American style of cooking, but just another word for being cooked. American English sometimes preserves much older English words than are now current in English English. The ‘honeycomb’, by the way, isn’t evidence of Jesus liking combinations of flavours which even Heston Blumenthal might find challenging – fish and honey sounds a disgusting combination – but rather it’s a rare example where the Authorised Version of the Bible has been led astray by what was presumably a corrupted manuscript. They translated as if it was μελου – ‘of honey’, as if it had had an ‘L’, instead of the better reading, μερου,’R’, ‘of a piece’, ‘of a piece of fish’. There’s just fish, no honey.

But still, he ate it. So let’s assume we can say that, astonishing as it was to see, it happened. But is it too contrary to ask, ‘So what?’ If we had been there, what would we have made of seeing Jesus brought back to life? Would we have picked up on the idea that he had offered himself as some kind of human sacrifice? And if he had, what was the purpose of the sacrifice?

If we follow the theology of Isaiah, the mechanism, how it works, is what is called ‘substitutionary atonement’. Greater love hath no man – and here Jesus is showing his love for us by accepting, or even bringing on himself, punishment which we, not he, deserved. He was offering himself to make up for our sins, to atone for them, to propitiate – those two last words you will recognise from services and hymns. Atoning for our sins; for ‘he is the propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 2:1; in the ‘Comfortable Words’, p.252 in your Prayer Books). The idea is one of ransom. God’s wrath has been bought off.

Does that square with how you think of God? Do you – do we – seriously think, these days, that God is so threatening? It seems to me that one would have to impute some characteristics to God that I doubt whether we could justify. Granted there are people who claim to have conversations with God, perhaps in the way the Old Testament prophets like Isaiah said they did. God ‘spoke through’ the prophets. But in Jesus, the prophecies were fulfilled: there were no more prophets.

What about the ‘sin’ that we are said to need to ‘propitiate’? What is it? Obviously, some sins are bad actions, breaches of the Ten Commandments – thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal. But we say now that sin is wider than just doing bad things – which could be dealt with as crimes, without bringing God into it, after all.

Sin, we say, is whatever separates us from God. So if God is love, the ultimate positive, hatred is sin. If God commands us to love our neighbour, and we wage war upon him instead, that is sin. But what is God’s reaction? Is there an actual judgement? Do the sheep go up and goats down? And if so, what was Jesus doing?

In the great last judgment at the end of St Matthew’s Gospel, when the sheep and the goats are being separated out, Jesus the Judge Eternal was bringing another angle on God. ‘Inasmuch as ye did it unto the least of these, ye did it unto to me’. You didn’t just turn your back on a starving man; you turned your back on Jesus, on God. Perhaps that’s how he takes our place, in some sense.

The great French philosopher and founder of the network of communities where people with learning difficulties and ‘normal’ people live together, called L’Arche, (in English, the Ark), Jean Vanier,  has just died at the age of 90. On the radio this morning someone quoted him as saying, ‘It doesn’t matter whether you believe in God: just believe in love’. I think that Jean Vanier meant that God is love. God showed that love for mankind by sending Jesus to live as a man here with us. In that he brought us closer to God, in showing us true love, Jesus conquered the power of sin. Perhaps this, rather than the idea of ransom, of human sacrifice, is what it means that Jesus offers ‘propitiation’ for sin.

Which is it? I don’t think that I can give you a neat resolution, a pat explanation, of this. Theologians from the early fathers through Thomas Aquinas and the Reformation scholars to the moderns like Richard Swinburne [Richard Swinburne 1989, Responsibility and Atonement, Oxford, OUP] have all wrestled with the meaning of what Jesus did – or what happened to Jesus, and why. It is, if nothing else, a demonstration of power, infinite power. No wonder that the ‘mountains skipped like rams’. But can we still feel it? We need to keep our eyes open.

Sermon for Holy Communion on the Second Sunday of Easter, 28th April 2019

Revelation 1:4-8, Acts 5:27-32, John 20:19-32

http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=423140630

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This Sunday our Bible readings take us back vividly to the life of the apostles just after the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Each passage illustrates a different angle. First in the Book of Revelation.

What is your favourite hymn? A little while ago there was a series in the parish magazine – well, actually in the old parish mag, before the beautiful St Mary’s Quarterly came out, of course – anyway, the series was on ‘favourite hymns’. People were invited to pick their favourite hymn and to explain what it was they liked about it. What would my favourite hymn be? One strong contender in my heart would be ‘Lo! He comes with clouds descending’, one of Charles Wesley’s greatest hymns. It’s number 31 in our hymn book, if you want to look it up.

Like many hymns, it contains several sermons and profound theological insights. It’s based on our first lesson, from the Book of Revelation, which says:

Look! He is coming with the clouds;

   every eye will see him,

even those who pierced him;

   and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.

So it is to be. Amen.

 

The hymn covers the same ground – in rather better poetry, I think.

The Book of Revelation is a book about the End Time, a vision of heaven, a vision of the divine. It’s a vision of God, and of Jesus sitting at his right hand, ‘up there’. Since Bishop John Robinson’s great little book ‘Honest to God’, or Don Cupitt’s BBC series called ‘The Sea of Faith’ in the early 1980s, we haven’t tended to see God as a man with a white beard sitting on top of the clouds. Even if we weren’t influenced by Bishop John Robinson or by Don Cupitt, you might remember that according to President Krushchev, when Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, returned to earth, he is supposed to have mentioned that he hadn’t seen God ‘up there’. The great vision in Revelation is a metaphorical one; its truth is not literal. Our reading from it says

Every eye will see him,

even those who pierced him.

‘Those who pierced him.’ We have to be careful not to take early accounts of the passion and resurrection of Jesus as being very anti-Jewish. The Pharisees and the Sadducees, the Sanhedrin, the ‘the whole body of the elders of Israel’, did, as a matter of bare facts, cause Jesus to be crucified: but as Jesus himself said, they did not know what they were doing. They were not consciously killing the Son of God. In the early encounter between the Jewish authorities and the disciples which we heard about in the words of Acts chapter 5, if you read a bit more of the chapter after this, you’ll see that it isn’t simply a question of a brush between the Jewish leaders and the apostles, not simply – or at all, actually – a kind of repeat of the persecution which had resulted in Jesus’ death. The full story tells that the High Priest and the Sadducees, motivated by jealousy, arrested the apostles and put them in prison. But ‘an angel of the Lord’ opened the doors of the prison and let them out during the night, so that when they went to get them in the morning, the police reported that they’d found the prison locked, but no apostles inside. They’d gone back to teaching in the Temple. They sent the police and fetched them to appear before the Council – but without using any force, ‘for fear of being stoned by the people’.

Then comes the passage which was our second reading, the exchange between the High Priest’s group, the Sadducees, and Peter. They asked, ‘Why did you ignore our injunction to prevent you from preaching?’ …. And the answer was, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’ Then Peter went on to rehearse the crucifixion story. ‘The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you had done to death’, and most important, ‘We are witnesses’. The Sadducees, extraordinarily, wanted to kill them. They couldn’t cope with how popular the gospel message had already become. To the apostles, it must have felt horribly reminiscent of the time immediately before the crucifixion.

But then another Jewish leader, a Pharisee called Gamaliel, a ‘teacher of the law held in high esteem by all the people’, stood up in the Sanhedrin council and said, ‘Keep clear of these men, I tell you; leave them alone. For if this idea of theirs or its execution is of human origin, it will collapse; but if it is from God, you will never be able to put them down, and you risk finding yourselves at war with God.’ These were wise words – and they came as much from a Jewish source as any of the cruel Sadducees’ threats. Both sentiments came from Jewish sources, enlightened, Gamaliel, or cruel, the Sadducees. You can’t really blame the Jews. They really had no idea what the big picture was.

A quick look back, before we move on to consider Doubting Thomas. An ‘angel of the Lord’ organised the apostles’ gaol break. What was this angel? Given that the name ‘angel’ means ‘messenger’ in the original Greek, rather than thinking about angels as being superheroes like Superman, let’s think instead that they could just have been ordinary Christians, doing the will of the Lord. You can understand quite a few of these apparently supernatural terms in natural, normal terms. Most likely it was just ordinary humans who got them out of jail – but in so doing, they were doing the work of God. But of course, if you want to believe in angels as something magical, between gods and mere men, fair enough. I’ve got no proof either way.

Then we do go on to think about Doubting Thomas. The story of Doubting Thomas has strengthened so many people’s faith. It certainly did mine. ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’. That’s us. We haven’t been able to do what Thomas did and verify empirically that they were encountering the risen Jesus. Our understanding, our trust in the whole Gospel, has to have been based on things we ourselves haven’t seen.

The essence of that faith is that Jesus rose from the dead. That’s not just an extraordinary miracle, something to amaze and delight you, which is really what the word ‘miracle’ meant originally, (something to amaze and delight), but also most crucially it means that God, however we understand him to be, the unmoved mover (according to Aristotle), the creator and sustainer, the Almighty, all-powerful, all knowing, He, has a relationship with the human race, with us.

God is bigger and infinitely more detailed than I, certainly, can comprehend. The Bible says, in St John’s Gospel, Jesus is quoted as saying, that whoever has seen him has seen the father (John 14:9). I suppose if you take literally the passages which have Jesus sitting at the right hand of God the Father in heaven, then those glorious images of a heavenly palace above the clouds will resonate with you.

But I think that I am too much a prosaic, matter-of-fact person to believe literally that that is how things are. I’m with Yuri Gagarin. I don’t actually think that God lives above the clouds, or indeed that he can be tied down to a particular time or place. Except of course he can. He can be tied down in a sense to the time and place of Jesus. If we didn’t know about Jesus we wouldn’t know anything at all about God except in purely functional terms, making stuff, creation, and knowing stuff, omniscience, and so on. And the story of Thomas is the most powerful expression of this.

But hang on a minute: if God isn’t somewhere, if there isn’t a sort of Mount Olympus somewhere, with God and his angels and Jesus together on top of the clouds on their thrones in some glorious palace which looks just as we would imagine 20th Century Fox and perhaps one of those great directors like David Lean would portray it, larger-than-life for sure; if that’s not the way it is, and if Jesus was not saying something completely fanciful, when he said that if we have seen him we have seen the father, then can we actually know God a bit more after all?

I wonder whether the angels are a clue. As I said earlier on, when the angel of the Lord came to let St Peter and the apostles out of the gaol, I did just wonder who the angel was. It occurred to me that, just as we say that the Holy Spirit – which is God in one form – just as we say that the Holy Spirit is in our church, is in all of us, and that we are called ‘the body of Christ’, here today as well, so it means that angels, messengers of God, could be ordinary people, just as Jesus was an ordinary human being in one sense.

So we could be angels. Surely we are angels, when the Spirit is at work in us and when we do God’s work. I’ve preached before about saints. I’ve made the point that the saints are all of us Christians. Another hymn:

For all the saints who from their labours rest,

Who thee by faith before the world confessed.

That’s us. We are in that wonderful ‘apostolic succession’, as it’s sometimes called, from the earliest Christians; and thousands and thousands of new Christians are coming forward every minute, who haven’t seen, but yet believe.

Well that’s great. It’s a very major thing – and we could stop it there and go away from this service feeling perhaps that we’d come a little closer to God. But the other major thing that we must consider is that, if we are to be saints and angels, real saints and angels, we must behave like them.

So today in a society where there is a terrible xenophobia, where people say things against immigrants, ignoring the fact that they are human beings like us, where people blame those who go to food banks, for being in some sense feckless or undeserving, where we turn our backs as a country on our relationships and treaties with other countries, where we fail to take our fair share of refugees, where we allow a government ministry to uproot people who have being here working and making their lives among us for decades, and send them to countries which they have not seen for those decades, on the grounds that they are in some way here illegally, where there are so many instances of our society’s meanness and failure properly to provide for those who are less fortunate than ourselves, where we justify it by shrugging our shoulders and saying that it is all very sad but there isn’t enough money to go round; but then, miraculously, the government finds billions for Brexit.

Yes, what I’m saying is political; but it is not intended to be party political. It’s true whether you’re Labour or LibDem or Conservative. The important thing is that we’re Christians. I’m saying that, as Christians, we should have a view on these things. We should call them out; we should stand against them, because we are Christians. We should, if we have a spare room, consider welcoming some refugees to stay with us when they first arrive. We should tell our politicians that it’s not acceptable not to put sprinklers in high rise council blocks like Grenfell Tower, (even though government ministers have promised to do it); tell our politicians it’s not acceptable not to pay proper compensation to the people whose lives have been ruined by the Windrush scandal; it’s not acceptable that thousands of people – last year, over 4,000 – are denied benefits on the grounds that they are fit to work, and then are so ill that they die within three months of that decision. It’s not acceptable that the newspapers should be full of pictures of a poor man, Stephen Smith, so emaciated that his bones are sticking out, so obviously desperately ill, denied benefits, on the ground that he is ‘fit to work’: he died. But not until he had won an appeal in court, as 70% of the appeals are won. [See https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/apr/22/stephen-smith-benefits-system-dying]

This institutional meanness doesn’t just come out of the air. Just as we are saints and angels with the Holy Spirit in us, we have God’s power in us. We are not impotent. We have God’s power to do something about it. We need to speak to our MP, to write letters, to demonstrate on the streets if necessary, to rise up.

So today the message, the Easter message, is that we have seen the Lord. We have seen him at work in our fellow saints and angels. Let us join them, let us take that divine power and use it.

Stephen Smith

‘To be a Christian is to be attentive to signs of God’s action in the world, and this is especially true in Holy Week and at Easter when – the faithful believe – Jesus by his death and resurrection revealed the nature of God’s relationship with humanity.’ Sometimes one finds profound theological statements in unlikely places. That sentence was from the first editorial in the Guardian on Wednesday 17th April. It is perhaps a slightly different way of putting the profound words ‘God so loved the world that He gave His only son …’

The three hours’ devotion service on Good Friday is concerned with sacrifice, about Jesus’ sacrifice, his terrible suffering and death. The service is unlike any other one in our Christian year. What makes it special is that we try to get really close to Jesus in his last hours, to understand what happened to him and what he did; as we often say in a theological context, to walk alongside him, or maybe rather to have him walk alongside us, in his time of trial.

To say the service is unlike any other one is not quite right, because every time we celebrate Holy Communion we remember Jesus’ sacrifice – ‘in the same night that he was betrayed, he took bread, and when he had given thanks to thee, he broke it and gave it to his disciples… and likewise after supper he took the cup; and when he had given thanks to thee, he gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of this, for this is my blood of the new covenant’. The heart of the Eucharist service is a memorial of the Last Supper, before Jesus’s crucifixion and death. I’m not in any way trying to take away the significance of the holy Eucharist, but I am saying that the Good Friday service takes you further and takes you deeper in understanding, or rather, shall we say, in appreciating, what Jesus went through.

What I am going to try to do now is to address that question of understanding. I hope that you will more fully appreciate what Jesus suffered, what he went through; and to some extent you will understand why, at least in the historical sense of who did what to whom.

I’m not going to touch on the mechanics of the crucifixion or the literal historical data; what I want to concentrate on is trying to explain it. Why did Jesus have to die?

Perhaps today it’s more a question ‘Why did He die?’, not necessarily why he had to die. You could say, following the words of the Creed, that Jesus’ death was for us – ‘who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate’. Jesus himself said that ‘greater love hath no man than that he should lay down his life for his friend’. (I am quoting from the Book of Common Prayer, 1662, and the Authorised Version of the Bible, 1611, so it is necessary to point out that ‘man’ means ‘human being’). Or again, we hear that Jesus is the ‘propitiation for our sins’, making up for what we have done that is sinful.

There is a powerful romantic theme that occasionally people do heroic things where they suffer in somebody else’s place. St Paul, in his letter to the Romans [5:7-8], contrasts what you might call ordinary heroism, risking your life or even losing your life, to save someone else whom you might not know particularly well, but have nothing against, and what Jesus appears to have done, which is to give his life not for just anybody but for people who definitely don’t deserve it, who are sinners.

We don’t really talk about ritual sacrifice much these days. The idea of going to a temple and slaughtering some animal to give it ritually to God is completely alien to us in our modern world. But I think we know how it was supposed to work: that nobody could measure up to God’s perfect standard, and to the extent that you fell short – an example of falling short would be Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden – to the extent that you fell short you had to ask God for forgiveness, to make it up to him, to turn away God’s wrath.

This is allied with the idea of the Last Judgement, either at the end of the world, (if we can imagine that), or at the end of a person’s life. And again, although we couldn’t really describe with any certainty what to expect at that End Time, as it is called, there is a very common idea that there will be some kind of last judgement; and indeed in the Bible at the end of St Matthew’s Gospel there is a picture of the last judgement, the division of the sheep from the goats. ‘The Son of Man shall come in his glory and all the holy angels with him. Then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory and before him shall be gathered all nations. And he shall separate them one from another as a shepherd divideth the sheep from the goats’ (Matthew 25:31-32). In that context, Jesus is taking the punishment that sinful man would otherwise deserve.

But there is a little question mark. It is easy to miss this, but particularly in the context of this very solemn, contemplative service, when we are trying to get as close as we can to follow in Jesus’s footsteps on the way to the place of the Skull, Golgotha, where he was crucified, the little niggle, if you like, is quite a major issue in fact. It is this. God gave his only son. What does the word ‘gave’ mean, here? God is, after all, the creator and sustainer of everything and

everyone. Did He give his only son over to be hurt, to be whipped, to be insulted, to be humiliated, to be tortured and ultimately killed in the most bestial way? Because if he did that, how can we say that God is a loving God, that God wants the best for all of us, and if there is evil in the world, it has come in against God?

As you know, sin isn’t just, isn’t really at all, a question of doing bad things. It has a very particular meaning. It is about being separated, divided off from God, cut off from God. And the ‘salvation’ that we talk about, that we believe in, the eternal life – ‘so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life’ – that salvation is coming together with God, being united eternally. So in that context how could God give his nearest and dearest over to be horribly hurt and then killed? Something doesn’t add up.

At the very least it looks as though there is a paradox. How could the good God hurt anyone, least of all his own son? And if you were concerned about that, put yourself in Jesus’ position. You would feel uniquely deserted. We will say, towards the end of this service, the terrible words of Psalm 22: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ It’s what Jesus said as he suffered. There is no more terrible protest in the whole of literature. ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

But at the end of the Stations of the Cross, these days the last station is usually the station of the Resurrection. These days, particularly since the Roman Catholics dusted off the old idea in their second Vatican Council in the sixties, the most important message to the world from Easter is the message of what they call the Paschal Mystery, the ‘unity of the death and resurrection of Jesus’. The Paschal mystery; the mystery is that unity, that putting together, of opposites; that everything to do with Jesus is the opposite of what you would expect.

Think of the Sermon on the Mount. Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Don’t retaliate. The exact opposite of the normal thing to do. In the Beatitudes, everything is back to front. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ You would have thought in the context of being close to God himself – the most theological situation you could possibly be in – that the last thing you would possibly want, in heaven with God, is to have weedy people round you who have no particular spiritual gifts. But they are blessed. ‘Theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. That’s crazy.

It’s more straightforward to understand ‘Blessed are they that mourn’. For ‘They shall be comforted’. That is a contrast, but it is an understandable one. You might hope for comfort. Jesus assures it.

But ‘Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven.’ Doesn’t sound happy – but happiness is assured.

Think of the Magnificat, the most revolutionary text this side of Karl Marx. ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.’ ‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate.’ Why don’t we sing that verse of ‘All things bright and beautiful’ any more? Mrs Alexander wasn’t saying it was right when she wrote that verse. We shouldn’t just shut it away. It’s shocking, and it’s meant to be.

There’s a sort of tension on Good Friday, there’s another sort of paradox; in a very sacramental way, for Jesus to be uniquely alive, alive in a new way that no-one had ever seen before, the opposite had to be true. He had to be very, very dead. But except in the very minimal sense that God, the creator and sustainer of all things, must be behind everything, everything that happens, I think we can explain Jesus’ suffering, not in terms of cruelty by his father, but in terms of the waywardness of sinful man.

When you look at the details of the trial before Pontius Pilate, there isn’t an inevitability about what happens. It is the active badness, the active sinfulness of the chief priests and scribes which catches Jesus. Pilate gave them a good way out if they had got carried away by the mob, by offering Jesus as the prisoner to be released in the traditional way at Passover time. But they positively chose – it was deliberate – to release the bad man and to kill off the good one. It was another paradox, and another counterintuitive.

But as you go through the Good Friday service, metaphorically walking behind the cross with Jesus, I do suggest that you can hold your head high and recognise him truly as your king, because that tomb will definitely be empty. This is Jesus working out the way to salvation: salvation, a relationship with God, a close relationship with God. That tomb will definitely be empty.

One implication of that is that there’s no need for a priest to stand between us and God. Jesus is the great high priest, who has opened the sanctuary to us. In the letter to the Hebrews [chapter 10], we will hear that the Lord says ‘I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more,’ and the letter goes on to say, ‘where there is forgiveness there is no longer any offering for sin. Therefore my friends since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way, that he opened for us through the curtain, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience’.

It’s not a question of buying off God’s wrath. It’s the other way round. God will raise Jesus from the dead, in the Easter morning miracle that we will joyfully celebrate. There it is. There is forgiveness and there is no longer any offering for sin. There will no longer be any blood sacrifice.

But first we must follow Jesus. To come out into his blessed light, we must follow him into the darkness.

This is an edited version of a reflection originally given by Hugh Bryant at the Three Hours’ Devotion service at St Mary’s Church, Stoke D’Abernon, on 19th April 2019.