Archives for posts with tag: sacrament

Sermon for Evensong on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, 13th January 2019

Isaiah 55:1-11; Romans 6:1-11

What difference does it make? You know, being a Christian. We are past the lovely Christmas baby-fest. Now what difference does God-with-us, Emmanuel, make?

Isaiah is saying to the Israelites, come back to the true God. Don’t follow pagan idols. 

‘Why spend money and get what is not bread,

why give the price of your labour and go unsatisfied?

Only listen to me and you will have good food to eat,

and you will enjoy the fat of the land.

Come to me and listen to my words,

hear me, and you shall have life:

I will make a covenant with you, this time for ever,

to love you faithfully as I loved David’ [Is. 55:2-3, NEB]

Salvation is coming. The Messiah will come. He will not be what you expect – he will be like a suffering servant, even – ‘ despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief’ [Is. 53:3f]. But ‘all we like sheep have gone astray’. You can hear Handel’s ‘Messiah’ in it – but you mustn’t be seduced by the beautiful music into not hearing the Bible underneath.

It’s the major theme of much of the Old Testament. The chosen people, the Israelites, ‘like sheep have gone astray’. They have worshipped false gods. Isaiah asks, ‘Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not?’ 

We can recognise ourselves a bit in this, even though it was written nearly 3,000 years ago. Your eyes will probably glaze over if I say this. Yeah, yeah. Of course we shouldn’t get hung up on new cars and posh extensions to our houses. But – we do. What harm does it do? Worse things happen at sea.

Well, Isaiah said to the Israelites, according to some scholars about 700BC, that they needed to ‘Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near:
Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord.’ It could still be valid for us today.

Because what the Israelites were doing was sin; they were sinning against the one true God. But he offers them a second chance. ‘Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.’

Sin is, in a sense, doing bad things. But underpinning that is the reason that something is sinful. It is, that it shows that the sinner is turning away from, is separated from, God. So if you steal, or envy someone their things, or elope with their wife, those are bad things, but they are also sins, because you are going against God’s commandments. ‘If ye love me, keep my commandments’ [John 14:15f].

But in our other reading, from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we have flashed forward 700 years from Isaiah, to the time of Jesus, and St Paul. Isaiah’s prophecies have come true. The Messiah has come. This morning in our services we were marking the Baptism of Christ. Christ meeting the last of the prophets, John the Baptist. You might perhaps think that because of the story of Jesus, there isn’t any need to bother with the Old Testament, with 60+ chapters of Isaiah and things, any more. But remember that Jesus himself said, ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am come not to destroy, but to fulfil.’ (Matt. 5:17). So when the dove came down on Jesus after his baptism in the River Jordan, and the voice from heaven said, ‘Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased’, it was a pivotal moment, joining the prophetic time with the incarnation of God on earth.

Paul made powerful use of baptism in his preaching to non-Jews. Baptism was a ritual common in Greek cults as well as in Christianity. ‘To his pagan converts it appealed as a sacrament parallel to those of the Greek mysteries’ (C.H. Dodd, 1950 (1920), The Meaning of Paul for Today, Glasgow, Wm Collins Sons and Co, p.130). In the Greek mysteries, by performing sacramental acts ‘spiritual effects could be obtained’ (Dodd).

Running through St Paul’s letters is the idea of the Christians being ‘in Christ’, intimately bound up with Christ. So, in a sense, Christ’s baptism was a symbol of being dead and then resurrected; going down into the water and then rising up out of it.  By being baptised ‘along with’ or ‘into’ Christ, Christians were symbolically sharing in his death and resurrection. 

At the same time, there was a problem: even after being baptised, Christians were still human, they still did sinful things. Paul said that we need to be ‘dead to sin’ in the way that Jesus was. That is, as Jesus died, he couldn’t be prey to sinful influences. He was ‘dead to sin’.  So as a Christian, if I am ‘alive to Christ’, baptised, sacramentally dead and resurrected with him, I too should be ‘dead to sin’. 

But it isn’t magic. It’s a sacrament. The essence of a sacrament is that it is ‘an outward visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’, as the Catechism in the BCP puts it (p294 of the Cambridge edition). It’s worth reading this bit of the Catechism. Things aren’t as fierce today as they were in the 16th century, when the heading to the Catechism in the BCP was ‘an Instruction to be learned of every Person before he be brought to be confirmed by the Bishop’. That is, learned by heart, at about 10 years old… 

Anyway, if you’re up for it, this is what you have to learn about being baptised.

‘Question.

How many parts are there in a Sacrament?

Answer.

Two: the outward visible sign, and the inward spiritual grace.

Question.

What is the outward visible sign or form in Baptism?

Answer.

Water: wherein the person is baptized, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

Question.

What is the inward and spiritual grace?

Answer.

A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness: for being by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace.

Question.

What is required of persons to be baptized?

Answer.

Repentance, whereby they forsake sin: and faith, whereby they stedfastly believe the promises of God, made to them in that Sacrament.’

‘A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness’. That’s what you get in Christian baptism. But just as sin doesn’t just mean doing bad things, so conversely, being a child of grace doesn’t mean just going with the flow, being baptised and doing nothing in consequence of it. You need repentance, μετάνοια, change of mind, as a prerequisite.

Paul has posed the problem, the puzzle. Why is there still sin around, or rather, can we still get away with committing sins, after we have been baptised? Indeed, he starts with a rather nerdy argument that sounds as though it has come out of a philosophy essay, to the effect that we need to carry on sinning in order to demonstrate by contrast the weight of grace which we have got. It’s almost like saying you can’t understand what it is to be black unless you have white as well.

Paul answers his puzzle not philosophically, but by explaining how we are joined with Christ in the sacrament. Dead with him; dead to sin.  Alive, resurrected, with Christ. So, I come back round to my original question. ‘What difference does it make? You know, being a Christian. We are past the lovely Christmas baby-fest. Now what difference does God-with-us, Emmanuel, make?’

This is tough stuff. It really means that, if we put our heads above the parapet and let people know that we are Christians, it should be evident in what we do, evident in how we behave. 

It means that in business, if we say that our actions are dictated solely by the need to make value, or profit, for shareholders; or in public affairs, if we say that we would like to do something good, but that money, or the market, dictates otherwise; if we see poor people risking their lives to escape poverty and danger, and try to keep them out instead of giving them a place of refuge; in all those cases, we will show ourselves as still not being dead to sin and alive to Christ. 

Think of Jesus’ teaching. God and mammon: the good Samaritan; the prodigal son; giving and not counting the cost. As Jesus said just before he was baptised, in St Luke’s Gospel, ‘The man with two shirts must share with him who has none, and anyone who has food must do the same.’ It’s not enough – although it’s a good start – just to go to church. Think what you have to do, to really do, in order to be really dead to sin.


Sermon for Evensong at Charterhouse for the PBS Meeting, 14th March 2015

Exodus 1:22 – 2:10; Hebrews 8

The Catechism in your Prayer Books comes after the various baptism services and before the confirmation service. In my Prayer Book, it begins on page 289. It is described as ‘An Instruction to be learned of every person before he be brought to be confirmed by the Bishop’. ‘Learned’ means ‘learned by heart.’

It was, apparently, one of the traditional curate’s tasks to coach the children in learning the catechism so that they could recite it. In the confirmation service, at the beginning the bishop reads a preface, which says, ‘.. the Church hath thought good to order, that none hereafter shall be confirmed, but such as can say the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments; and can also answer to such other Questions, as in the short Catechism are contained: which order is very convenient to be observed..’

The ‘short Catechism’! These children – maybe some of them as young as ten years old – had to be word-perfect on pages 289 to 296 of their Prayer Books. Well, before we grind to a halt in awe at the brilliance of our ancestors in their childhood years, I would just say that I think the Catechism is still very useful, not for use in school detention, as a point of reference about our faith. As with everything else in the Prayer Book, it sums up in beautiful language, and very clearly, all the elements of the Christian faith: the Creed, belief in Father, Son and Holy Ghost and in the death and resurrection of Christ; the Ten Commandments, ‘the same which God spake in the twentieth chapter of Exodus’, the Law given to Moses, the Lord’s Prayer; questions and answers about the sacraments, that is, what we are doing when we are worshipping in church.

‘What meanest thou by this word Sacrament?’

‘I mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.’

You can just hear a ten-year-old saying that! But it is the essence of worship.

Today’s lessons take us from the birth of Moses, to whom God spoke, and to whom God gave the Law, the Ten Commandments, who was from the tribe of Levi, the tribe of priests. He was a priest of the order of Melchizedek, the mythical high priest, king of righteousness, king of peace; ‘without father, without mother, without descent: having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like unto the Son of God’. That’s Hebrews chapter 7. We go from there, from the birth of Moses, to the new high priest, the new high priest of the order of Melchizedek, Jesus Christ. ‘We have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens.’

So in this part of our time of reflection in Lent, as we come to the fourth Sunday in Lent, we are being encouraged by our Bible reading to think about what it is to worship, and what it is to be a priest, to recognise Jesus as our high priest.

Nowadays we think of a priest as somebody who leads worship, who preaches sermons and acts as a sort of managing director of the management of a church. But in the time of Moses, a priest of the order of Melchizedek was an intermediary, was a mediator between man and God. He was the only one allowed to enter the holy of holies, the inner sanctum, the inner sanctuary in the Temple. The high priest was the only one qualified to encounter God face to face.

Now, the God which we worship with the help of Jesus is not so fierce. He does not demand blood sacrifices. We are able to come to God through grace, through His free gift of love, not through His weighing our merits or pardoning our offences.

But who are we, in this context? This afternoon, this little band of the faithful has a label. We are members of the Prayer Book Society. We are Christians. We are Christians who like to worship, and whose Christianity is informed by, this great and ancient book, the Book of Common Prayer.

But it is our Christianity that is informed by our love of this book, and informed by this book itself. It’s not the case that we are here because we share the love of stamps or Jaguar cars, or some other passion: the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, in my case. We are here as Christians. We are here because we want to worship God, in Christ, and we want to spread the Good News of Christ because we are Christians, and because He commanded us to do so.

The Prayer Book comes into it because we believe that the Prayer Book gives expression to our faith and shape to our worship in a better way than any other liturgy that we know. But it’s not a question of entertainment. The difference between going to see a play of Shakespeare and saying the service, or singing the service, at Evensong or at Mattins, or at the Lord’s table in Holy Communion, is that one is entertainment – maybe edifying, but it is entertainment nevertheless – and the other is worship, is bringing ourselves to God in praise and prayer.

Just as belief in God and in Jesus Christ as His Son has lasted for over 2,000 years, and still seems to be a very lively belief in many parts of the world, for the last 500 years the Book of Common Prayer has been the blueprint for worship in England and Wales. The PBS exists to keep that tradition going.

But where is our faith going to take us in the future? Is there a specifically Prayer Book dimension to this which will keep us together and do the Lord’s work at the same time? We’re not a very big band of people here in the Guildford Branch of the Prayer Book Society. Although it’s fair to say that there are quite a number of loyal members who don’t turn out for our services and meetings, even so we are rather a select band.

Apparently, according to Church of England research which I learned about at the Diocesan Synod last Saturday, if you define a country parish as a parish which has fewer than 10,000 residents in it, over 60% of the churches in England are in ‘country’ parishes. No doubt most of us here in Guildford Diocese live in country parishes, if they are defined in that way, strangely enough.

So if the Prayer Book Society, Guildford branch, was a country parish, with a small congregation, what should we be doing in order to do the Lord’s work in such a parish? At the Diocesan Synod last weekend, I learned that Archbishop Justin has set up working groups among the bishops ‘to grow and enhance the quality of the Christian witness’ in this country, and we were treated to a couple of case histories where churches, which had had rather small congregations and appeared not to be going anywhere, had been turned around and revitalised, and were now giving a much more dynamic witness to their faith in Christ.

Holy Trinity Claygate did a ‘Church-planting’ exercise in East Molesey. 40 people from Claygate have transferred to St Mary’s, East Molesey, along with a dynamic young curate, Revd Richard Lloyd – who, incidentally, was once Chaplain here at Charterhouse. Where there was once a band of about 40 rather elderly people and a large church building to keep up – a gentle air of genteel decline – now, there are still those faithful old people. But there are also about 150 people who have joined the church subsequently. Not just elderly people, but people of all ages, parents and children. And there is another church, All Saints, Weston Green, where again there is new growth, new people are joining the church, and the church is getting involved in more and more things.

In one instance, the relaunch of the church had a lot to do with introducing modern forms of worship, directly appealing to younger people. But in the other, when I looked at the church’s website, at first I wasn’t sure whether I was looking at the right church. They looked pretty normal, pretty standard.

They too had made an effort – a successful effort – to attract younger people. But their view was that it wasn’t the type of services that was keeping the young ones away – it was the time of the Sunday morning service. This was because a lot of the children were attending sports training sessions – mini Rugby in Cobham, for example – at exactly the same time as the Sunday service and Sunday School in church. What was the solution? They switched their family service to 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and made it a weekly service. But the actual liturgy was pretty standard. There has been no rush to wildly evangelical services, led by music groups with guitars. But the people are coming.

So what’s the X Factor? For both these churches, it was the fact that they formed several little groups of people who looked outside at their local communities, and did something practical to get involved. For example, the local food bank. Did you know that there are now 40 food banks in Surrey? Most of them have been started by local churches. Or Citizens’ Advice, or job clubs for people looking for work. Or groups who drive people to hospital and doctors’ appointments. There are lots of ways for members of the congregation to engage with their local community. If you think of Jesus’ great commandments, (which were, of course, just repeating what Moses had said), to love God and love our neighbours as ourselves, our worship is loving God, and our getting out into our local communities and doing some practical good is the Good Samaritan bit.

I pray that this congregation, this branch of the PBS, will thrive and grow. It will grow through your efforts as members of the PBS, helping churches all through our Diocese to worship regularly in Cranmer’s way – remember that Evensong is the fastest-growing service in the C of E – and helping to witness to our faith, by our practical love for our neighbours.