Archives for posts with tag: good friday

Sermon for Mattins on Palm Sunday, 20th March 2016

Zechariah 9:9-12, 1Cor.2:1-12
We know what happens next. Or as people say nowadays, ‘Spoiler alert!’ ‘Ride on, ride on in majesty’. If you’ve just been to the family Eucharist at 10 o’clock, and seen the lovely tableau which the children presented, and maybe you have admired the Shetland pony on your way out, you will know why, when you were little, Palm Sunday was one of the best Sundays in the year to go to church. Donkeys are, alas, in rather short supply these days: there are now rather strict rules about what you have to do if you are going to carry a donkey around.

Mind you, in Stoke D’Abernon, many of the Mums do have the right vehicle for towing a horse box. Somewhere around here there is even a Range Rover with the registration number KT11 MUM! Anyway at St Mary’s we have had a lovely Shetland pony, and I am sure that Jesus would not have turned his nose up at a ride on him.

Processions are fun. Walking down the hill in a happy throng following someone riding on a Shetland pony was a very jolly thing to do. You can wave your palm leaves and your palm crosses. People do get quite carried away when they get caught up in supporting somebody who seems to take away their cares and blot out the annoyances that they have to put up with.

It’s quite noticeable, for example, that Donald Trump seems to have caught the imagination of a lot of people who feel left out by mainstream politics in the United States. They feel that big government doesn’t listen to them. Trump is their champion.

The Israelites had been in exile, and then under foreign domination, in their own country, for hundreds of years. At the time of Jesus, of course, the Romans were in charge and the Jews were second-class citizens. They were looking forward to the coming of a messiah, a deliverer, a king who was going to liberate them. They looked back to the various prophecies in Isaiah: the servant king, and in Zechariah was this strange image of a king coming on a donkey.

The basic model for the procession was what Roman generals did when they came back from foreign wars. If they had been successful, they were granted the right to have what was called a ‘triumph.’ A triumph was a magnificent procession through the centre of Rome, parading their captives and soaking up the applause of the people.

You can see that it would very much depend on your point of view how such a procession, with Jesus at its head, would be viewed. Even though Jesus was riding on a donkey, it might look rather challenging to the powers that be. In Palestine at that time, the ‘powers that be’ were both the Romans and the Jews, (the Pharisees and the scribes), because the Jews had a form of self rule, under the overall authority of the Romans. So if this big procession came over the hill from Bethany and down the Mount of Olives, it’s fairly understandable that both the Jewish authorities and the Romans might well have found it disturbing.

Even today, although we are supposed to be very liberal in our approach to free speech, you have to get permission for a demo to take place. You can’t just have a procession through the centre of the village, so that it blocks the traffic. For people in authority, processions are a sign of discontent.

There was a raw energy about to this crowd. In St John’s Gospel, we are told that the people were particularly excited because they had heard about Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life from the dead. Jesus, riding on a donkey, was a fulfilment of Zechariah’s prophecy. It all added up to a moment of great hope for the people. A man who could bring a dead man back to life could certainly be the king that they were looking for, to throw off the yoke of Roman rule so that Jerusalem would be liberated again.

But we know what comes next. ‘Ride on, ride on, in lowly pomp ride on – to die.’ A huge amount of the New Testament is devoted to the events of next week, Holy Week. A quarter of St Luke’s gospel; a third of Saint Matthew and St Mark and nearly half of St John’s Gospel. This is what Christianity is all about. And certainly, in this week, it is not about a triumph. It is not about conquest. It is more like a catalogue of suffering and failure.

When you’re little, you can only really take in nice stories about people riding on the back of donkeys. Good Friday is not something that we go into in great detail with our children. It is in a very real sense what in the cinema would attract an X rating. It is something which is too shocking. What we are talking about is the death of God, people putting to death the man who was also God. Five days earlier this man was being feted as the returning hero, as the Messiah, the king from over the water.

Nevertheless he, this same man, was going to be strung up on a cross along with common criminals.

Saint Paul says that the authorities would never have done it if they had known the full story. ‘We speak the wisdom of God in a mystery which none of the princes of this world knew; for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.’ [1 Cor. 2:8]

In Spiritual Cinema next week, on Tuesday, we intend to show the shortened, animated version of Ben Hur. We debated what would be an appropriate film to show during Holy Week. One film which we have shown in the past, which I felt was perhaps the very best one, was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. A few years ago, we actually showed it in St Andrew’s Church, in the church itself.

For those who haven’t seen it, it is a very harrowing film, because it does show, in a very realistic way, exactly what happened to Jesus; how he was flogged, humiliated and ultimately crucified. Somehow it brings home to you the awfulness of what he suffered in a way that cold print on a page just can’t do. It would be a shocking film if you were watching somebody – just anybody – suffering in that way. Nobody should be treated in such a brutal and bestial way. But Jesus did suffer in that way, and he was the son of God.

The contrast with the jolly man on a donkey could not be more profound and more complete. We know what happened next. What must it feel like if you have just committed the most terrible crime, and realise what you have just done? What will the Judge say? What will your sentence be? What if that crime is to kill the son of God?

Oh, you say, but we didn’t. We weren’t there. It was the bad people, even the Jews. But in a sense, we were there. In a sense, the turnover, from his triumph to his downfall and being lifted up on the cross, was entirely predictable. It made sense in human terms to the powers that be. It wasn’t specifically because they were Jews or because they were Romans or whomever. They were just ordinary fallible human beings. They didn’t recognise his divinity. Pontius Pilate having the inscription put over the cross, naming Jesus as the King of the Jews, says it all. In one sense, he was the king of the Jews, but in that the Jews were the chosen people of God he was also king of heaven.

In Lent we have been encouraged to reflect, to deny ourselves, maybe to fast, and to pray. Now in this week, this Holy Week, we are invited to think about the full awfulness of what Jesus suffered, and why he suffered it. Maybe we should do it without a spoiler alert. Maybe we should say, we don’t know what comes next. Maybe we aren’t too comfortable. If Jesus died for all of us, for all of humankind, we should reflect that the sort of evil which pushed Jesus on to the cross is still with us.

People are still hurting each other, pursuing gain without thought for the loss to someone else that that gain entails. We are still returning an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. We are still going by on the other side. We are still worshipping false gods.

‘Ride on, ride on in majesty. In lowly pomp, ride on to die.’

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Sermon for the Sunday before Lent, Quinquagesima Sunday, at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon, 15th February 2015

Holy Communion and Mattins – Mark 9:2-9: Evensong – 2 Peter 1:16-21

One of the nicer ways to get people, who don’t normally come to church, to darken our doors, is for there to be a concert in church. We are blessed here in Stoke and Cobham with an awful lot of good music. We have all sorts of recitals, here in St Mary’s, and down the road, St Andrew’s hosts regular concerts under the ‘Maiastra’ name.

This is where musicians who have participated in a residential master-class at Aidan Woodcock’s house, at Little Slyfield, just opposite the Yehudi Menuhin School, give a concert, led by their teacher. These are people at the beginning of their performing career, who have already graduated – sometimes more than once – from leading music schools, and have usually won some prizes as well. The Maiastra concerts – the name, incidentally, comes from a mythical Persian bird – are a real opportunity to hear the classical music stars of tomorrow, and they’re very exciting, very good.

These concerts do bring a lot of people into the church who wouldn’t ordinarily come – either because they are not local, or because they just don’t go to church. I hope that some of them, having found a warm welcome and a beautiful space, do decide to come back to worship with us later on.

So far, so good. But I had a rather disappointing exchange the other day with one of the admin staff for the master classes, who was trying to book the church for a Maiastra concert at the beginning of April. ‘How would Friday 3rd or Saturday 4th be? Would the church be free?’ Well, I was rather surprised, because of course that is Good Friday and Easter Saturday. I had to delicately remind the lady that this was Easter, the height of the Christian year, and that, I was afraid, the church was not going to be free.

‘So sorry’, she said, ‘Of course.’ She would talk to the course tutor to see whether the course could be slightly rescheduled, so as to allow the concert to take place without conflicting with Easter. Back came another email. ‘How about the Monday or Tuesday?’ Oh dear.

So I had to go back and explain that that was the Monday and Tuesday of Holy Week – all part of the most important part of the Christian year, so that you couldn’t think of having a concert in the church, unless it was a devotional performance, at all during that week.

Well, of course the concert will eventually take place at some other time. But I reflected on that a bit, in the context of our worship today, on the Sunday before Lent, when we remember Jesus’ Transfiguration. The cloud descended, and a voice said the same words as they heard when Jesus was baptised in the Jordan: ‘He is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him.’ It was a literally dazzling experience for Peter and James and John, as they accompanied Jesus up the high mountain. You couldn’t ignore that. It would be a life-changing experience.

But here’s the thing. Today, very often it would appear that people are ignoring this: that these extraordinary events no longer affect people’s lives. The nice people organising the Maiastra concert had forgotten what the main purpose of a church is. It’s not just a pretty concert venue. At the Church’s General Synod this week, one of the speakers reminded the delegates that studies had shown that, if the Church of England carries on declining in numbers at the current rate, 1% per year, overall in England (although fortunately, not in the Guildford Diocese), there will come a time, sooner rather than later, when churches in many rural parishes will be unsustainable and it will no longer be the case that the Church of England will have a parish church in every city, town and village in England.

So the Church has been embarking on all sorts for programmes of evangelisation: Messy Church, Fresh Expressions, Alpha courses, and so on. And quite a lot of it seems to be working. New people are coming to the the Church. Its interesting that it’s not always the most modern ideas which are successful in involving new people. Apparently the fastest-growing service in terms of numbers attending in the Church of England is – what do you think? It’s Evensong.

Obviously to some extent that’s influenced by the fact that cathedrals are attracting more and more people, and Evensong is seen as a quintessentially cathedral service; although of course we have lovely Evensongs here at St Mary’s every Sunday, sung just as they are in a cathedral; in fact, we sing a little bit more of the service than they do in Guildford Cathedral.

But the fact is that we are 2,000 years away from the spectacular events of Jesus’ time here on earth. It was relatively easy, when compared with our position, for the disciples to go out and spread the Gospel. As St Peter said in his second letter [2 Peter 1:16], they’d ‘been eyewitnesses of his majesty’ – they had seen Him, they’d witnessed the miraculous things that happened; and the inner circle, Peter and James and John, had even seen a foretaste of the Resurrection. The transfigured Jesus was like the resurrected Jesus. It was a glimpse into the future.

As a matter of intellect, as a matter of rational reflection, that’s still tremendously important, even 2,000 years later, even today. For us as Christians, as practising Christians, it’s something we couldn’t even think of ignoring. We have to react. We have to come and worship, and say prayers, and give our sacrifice of praise.

But what about the people who don’t get it? The people for whom church really doesn’t figure in their lives? St Paul has something to say about that in his second Letter to the Corinthians. ‘If our gospel be hid’ – if our Gospel is veiled, if our Gospel is obscure – St Paul says that it is ‘hid to them that are lost’, who are ‘on their way to perdition’, as one translation puts it. ‘Their unbelieving minds are so blinded by the god of this passing age, that the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the very image of God, cannot dawn upon them and bring them light.’ [2 Corinthians 4:3f]

It’s an easy thing to understand. If you are doing well, having a nice life, enjoying good things, you probably don’t feel there’s anything much missing in your life: that’s one kind of distraction. If you are somebody who comes from a home where nobody ever went to church, and you go to school and study at university among people who see a scientific explanation for everything; who don’t need, or feel they don’t need, any kind of reference to God, the Gospel will be veiled from you.

Later on in his second Letter to the Corinthians, St Paul says this. ‘No wonder we do not lose heart, though our outward humanity is in decay, yet day by day we are inwardly renewed. Our troubles are slight and short-lived; and their outcome an eternal glory which outweighs them far. Meanwhile our eyes are fixed, not on the things that are seen, but on the things that are unseen: for what is seen passes away; what is unseen is eternal.’ [2 Corinthians 4:16f]

I think that’s a very good message for us. We can’t see, in the same way that the disciples saw. That unseen reality, that inner spiritual reality, the working of God, is what is permanent and unchanging. It’s just as good now, as it is was 2,000 years ago, as it was in the time of St Paul.

Jesus’ injunction to us Christians was to ‘go and teach all nations, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.’ So what is it that we should do? I’m not really qualified to tell you a whole lot about Fresh Expressions of Church or Messy Church – although I can tell you that our Messy Church, run by Churches Together, attracts big numbers of children and their parents each time – but what I think is important and perhaps may open the idea of the Kingdom to more and more people – is the idea that we get over and over again, from Archbishop Justin and Archbishop John Sentamu, that we should be as the Lord intended us to be, and that we should live our lives in such a way as to promote human flourishing: flourishing, ευδαιμονία, something more than just passing your time without hurting anybody, something more than just keeping your nose clean: but instead actively looking out for ways to go the extra mile, to do the better thing.

It’s perhaps a bit unfair to single out anyone, particularly in the last week, for examination against that kind of background, but I can’t help thinking we will all have been a bit challenged by the sad story of the Revd Lord Green, the retired boss of HSBC, who has preached sermons and written books, preaching the virtue of observing the very highest moral standards.

But unfortunately at the same time, his bank was offering to clients a very aggressive form of tax avoidance. When I worked in the City, we were brought up to distinguish, reading the fine print, between tax avoidance, which is legal, and tax evasion, which isn’t. But this now seems to be a place where simply following the letter of the law isn’t enough. The Christian way, the Gospel way, is in fact not only not to evade tax, but also not to avoid it either. It’s rather bad luck, I think, on poor old Lord Green that in his part of the City – as indeed in my part of the City when I was there – nobody told him that the rules had changed, and he perhaps never appreciated that simply observing the law wasn’t necessarily sufficient in order to demonstrate the light of God.

Because, you see, when you do get to be able to see the light, then you will be like the Good Samaritan. You will be actively looking out for people you can help, rather than just sticking to the letter of the law. Let us pray that we will see that light: that the light will shine on us: and if we’re not transfigured, let us pray that we are at least transformed.

Sermon for Evensong on the Seventh Sunday of Easter, 1st June 2014
2 Sam 23:1-5, Eph.1:15-23

First we heard the last words of King David, and then St Paul’s prayer for the Christians at Ephesus. The context is the Ascension, which the church celebrated on Thursday. Leave-taking. The end of the party. I wonder who did the washing-up. When the disciples – and certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus as well as his brothers, when they were all together after Jesus had left them and a cloud had taken Him out of their sight, when it was over, when the ‘farewell tour’, Jesus Christ Superstar, had come to the end of its run: what do you think they all did?

They went back to the upstairs room and said prayers. And maybe they got busy doing the washing up. Because they must have been feeling very flat. We know that when Jesus had been crucified, if we think of the story of the disciples on the way to Emmaus, they were very sad then, when they thought that Jesus had been taken away from them.

So I think we can reasonably expect that they were also feeling very flat and very sad when Jesus had been taken away from them the second time, when He had ascended into heaven. Whitsuntide, Pentecost, had not yet come, although Jesus had assured them, ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). But that hadn’t happened yet.

It must have been very difficult, after all the momentous things that had happened. After the roller-coaster ride of following Jesus, suddenly He wasn’t there any more. In the church, we have commemorated that roller-coaster ride, through the Easter season, though the time of Jesus’ passion, and suffering, Good Friday; and then the glorious Resurrection on Easter Sunday; and then His risen appearances, the road to Emmaus, doubting Thomas: all the wonderful stories of the risen Christ.

It is a revelation to us, a sure and certain hope that we have, because of God’s presence with us, His gift of His only Son and His Resurrection from the dead. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Paul prays that God will give them ‘a spirit of wisdom and revelation as they come to know Him, so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which He has called you, what are the riches of His glorious inheritance among the saints.'(Eph.1:17)

If you are a Christian, if you go to church, this is a wonderful time of year: the Easter season. It is a time of hope and joy. But in the world outside, there is a sense of challenge. Not everyone is a Christian. Not everyone is aware of, let alone believes in, the wonderful story of Jesus. The Boko Haram people who have kidnapped 200 children, 200 girls, in Nigeria, are actively opposed to the Christian message. They want forcibly to convert people to Islam – forgetting perhaps that the god of Islam is very like the God of Israel and the God of the Christians – and certainly forgetting that God is a god of love.

Also in the world outside, we had an election. Some of you may have heard of my huge success in the Cobham Fairmile Ward election. It was a massive success, honestly: despite representing the Labour Party, I managed to poll in double figures! St Mary’s has much more successful politicians – congratulations to James Vickers!

After the elections, the press and the BBC are talking about the phenomenon of UKIP and what they stand for. It seems that a major part of UKIP’s message is that they are opposed to large-scale immigration and they are opposed to our membership of the EU, perhaps because they see the EU as being a major cause of the immigration which they don’t like.

And then there’s the controversy which has grown up concerning the new book by the French economist Thomas Piketty, called ‘Capital in the 21st Century’, which is all about the widening gap between the rich and the poor worldwide. Prof Piketty offers, at the end of his 573-page tome, some suggested alternatives to the economic policies which are being pursued in all the leading economies. But a Financial Times journalist, Chris Giles, has argued that Prof Piketty’s figures are wrong. If you put more than one economist in a room, they will inevitably disagree! I see that Ed Miliband confessed that he’d only just started reading Thomas Piketty. I have got to page 51.

It does all seem quite a long way away from the world of Easter, from the Resurrection and the Ascension: from the hopeful question from the disciples to Jesus just before He was taken from them, ‘Lord, is this the time when you are to establish again the sovereignty of Israel?’ (Acts 1:6 – NEB), a long way from all that, to the rather gloomy fact that only a minority of people cared enough about the way they are governed, even to cast a vote.

There does seem to be a big gap at the moment, between our church lives and the world outside. It’s all very well St Paul saying in his Letter to the Galatians that ‘the harvest of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness and self-control’. (Gal. 5:22f), but how is that relevant to UKIP and to the world of macroeconomic theory?

What we are not hearing, in all this ferment of debate, is a Christian voice. What about immigrants? A politician says he couldn’t hear any English spoken in his carriage on the Tube. An election flyer says that there is some impossible number of East Europeans just waiting to come to the UK, take our jobs and claim all our benefits. Someone else points out, against this, that the NHS would collapse without doctors and nurses from abroad. Another expert points out that immigrants contribute more in taxes than they receive in benefits, and that fees from foreign students are vital to the survival of our universities.

But – and perhaps I haven’t been reading the right paper or listening to the right station on the wireless – I don’t recall anyone bringing the Bible into it, which they could have done. In the Old Testament, it’s a fundamental point of the Jewish Law that you must look after strangers, aliens, foreigners – in Deut. 10:19, Moses says that God ‘loves the alien who lives among you, giving him food and clothing. You too must love the alien, for you once lived as aliens in Egypt.’ In Jesus’ staggering picture of the Last Judgment in Matt. 25, He says that the righteous shall ‘enter and possess the kingdom’ because ‘… when I was hungry, you gave me food; when thirsty, you gave me drink; when I was a stranger you took me into your home …’ When the righteous didn’t get it, and queried when they had done this, Jesus said, ‘I tell you this: anything you did for one of my brothers here, however humble, you did for me.’

Jesus didn’t blame people for being poor. He didn’t think there was anything wrong with being a refugee. His ancestors, the Jewish people, had all been refugees. He didn’t talk about benefit cheats and scroungers. He didn’t talk about corporate tax avoidance – although he did say, ‘Render … unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s’. Maybe that is a good message for Starbucks, Vodafone and Google.

What about the widening gap between rich and poor, which Thomas Piketty has written about? Are the only things, which can be said, ‘It’s the market’, and ‘There is no alternative?’ If the government gives a tax cut to the highest earners, (which one commentator said was enough for them to go out and buy a Porsche with), at the same time as over 1 million people have had to go to a food bank to avoid starvation – and by the way, that includes 307 people in Cobham and Stoke D’Abernon who have used the Foodbank since we opened five months ago – if there is that seeming bias towards the rich, what is the Christian way to look at it?

Perhaps the answer is in the Magnificat, the song of Mary, the mother of God:

He hath put down the mighty from their seat:
And hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things:
And the rich he hath sent empty away. [Luke 1:46-55]

You might also remember what Jesus said about camels and the eye of a needle. [Matt.19:24]

But Jesus has been taken away from us. He has disappeared behind a cloud. Disappeared behind a cloud, a cloud of modern stuff. But, you might say, things were much more simple in Jesus’ day. There weren’t any benefit cheats. There weren’t any Romanians using the EU as a way to come and steal our jobs. You just can’t compare how it was then with the situation these days.

I think we should think carefully about it. I know that, in this week in the church’s year, you might argue that Jesus has ascended, and the Holy Spirit is coming – Jesus told his disciples to expect it, in Acts chapter 1 – but it doesn’t arrive till next Sunday. If it looks as though our world is rather godless, that fits with Jesus having left us, with the Ascension time.

But in this world, in our day to day lives, of course the Holy Spirit is here. The Lord is here. His Spirit is with us. So why does it look as though we are we ignoring Him? Is it OK not to want strangers? Is it OK that the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer?

As Christians, what do we think? Have I chosen my Bible references too selectively? Or is it more a question that the world today is more complicated than it was in Jesus’ time, and that some of Jesus’ sayings are out of date these days?

Or have we Christians really got something very distinctive to say, which doesn’t necessarily fit in with conventional wisdom? I’d be interested to hear what your thoughts are.