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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.

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‘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.

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 Holy Communion for SS Simon and Jude, 28th October 2018

Ephesians 2:19-end; John 15:17-end

Today along with most of the churches in the western world we are commemorating two apostles whom we know very little about, St Simon and St Jude.

There were two Judes, two Judases. We’re not quite sure who this one was, because in the four Gospels he is described as being various things. In St Matthew and St Mark he is not called Judas but Thaddeus, which might be a surname; it is only in Saint Luke and the Acts of the Apostles that he is called Jude. St Jude was not the same as Judas Iscariot, although his name in Greek is the same, Ιουδας. People historically haven’t chosen him to invoke in prayer, because they think he might get mixed up with Judas Iscariot. So he is called the patron saint of lost causes – ‘If all else fails, offer a prayer through St Jude’. The little letter of Jude in the New Testament was not written by this Jude, according to many scholars. In St Luke’s Gospel Jude is described as the son of James the brother of Jesus. ‘Jude the Obscure’, which was the title of one of Thomas Hardy’s novels, is an apt name for him.

Simon – not Simon Peter – had been a terrorist – a real terrorist. He had been a member of the Zealots, who were a Jewish extremist sect that believed that the Jews were supposed to be a free and independent nation; that God alone would be their king, and that any payment of taxes to the Romans or accepting their rule was a blasphemy against God. They were violent. They attacked both Romans and any Jews who they thought were collaborating with the Romans. Simon had been one of them.

So the Apostles were a motley assortment. Humble fishermen; a tax collector; a terrorist (although of course, depending on your point of view, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter); James and John, the ‘Sons of Thunder’, whatever that means. It certainly doesn’t sound meek and mild. And of course, Judas Iscariot; the other Jude. Jesus wasn’t choosing people whom we would think of as saintly.

But there isn’t an awful lot that we know about Simon the Zealot and Jude – Jude-not-that-Jude. So our Bible readings today, the message from St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, ‘You are no longer aliens in a foreign land,’ and the message from St John’s Gospel, about Christians not belonging to the world, are not about them, but rather they are a reminder of some of the teaching that Jesus – and after him, St Paul – gave to the Apostles and to the early Christians.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians has a great theme of ‘reconciliation’: St Paul’s great mission was to bring the Gospel to the non-Jews, the Gentiles, so that Christianity wasn’t just a subdivision of Jewishness. ‘You are no longer aliens in a foreign land.’ Perhaps it’s not so topical for us nowadays.

But in Jesus’ own teaching, from St John’s Gospel (chapter 15) that we heard this morning, packed into these few lines there are some really deep meanings which still help us to understand the nature of God.

Jesus said, ’Because you do not belong to the world … For that reason the world hates you.’ In Jesus’ day and in that Roman world, being a Christian was definitely dangerous, simply because Christians didn’t worship the Roman emperor as a god. In the reign of some emperors, for example Diocletian, it meant that large numbers of Christians were fed to the lions.

It’s still to some extent true today, in parts of the Middle East and in Northern Nigeria, that Christians are persecuted. But by and large in our part of Surrey, it’s not really controversial to say that you are a Christian. But I do think that perhaps we still should reflect on what it means ‘not to belong to the world’. You don’t ‘breathe the same air’, as people sometimes say. Are we sometimes tempted to keep our religious belief out of things, for fear of offending people? But Jesus said here, don’t be afraid of being different.

What about the next proposition in this teaching passage, ‘Servants are not greater than their master’? The translation is actually wrong. The word isn’t ‘servant’, but ‘slave’, δουλος in Greek. This word also means what was called a ‘bondsman’, somebody who was indentured, bought. In the Roman empire, bondsmen, indentured slaves, could buy their freedom. Their bonds could be remitted, they could be ransomed.

It seems to me that these words surely have echoes of the idea of redemption, that by Jesus’ sacrifice he has purchased our remission from the slavery of sin. Jesus has bought us out, redeemed us. We are no longer slaves. Earlier on in chapter 15, indeed Jesus does say, ‘I call you slaves no longer’.

‘The people who hate you’, Jesus said, ‘do not know the one who sent me’. Again: ‘… the one who sent me.’ This is a reminder of the way that Christians understand God ‘in three persons’, as the Holy Trinity, father, son and Holy Spirit. (Jesus comes to the Holy Spirit later on, when he talks about sending what he calls the ‘Advocate’, the spirit of truth, after he has gone. Here, it’s just him and the One who sent him).

Here we can see what caused some of the controversy in the early church, which ended up in the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century, and in our Nicene Creed. If God ‘sent’ Jesus, the Son, was Jesus also God, or just another creature? And depending on the answer to that question, where did the Holy Spirit come from? God, or God-and-Jesus? And again, was the Spirit, is the Spirit – remember, ‘His Spirit is with us’, we say – is the Spirit made by God, or is it God itself?

If you don’t think of God as a nice old chap with a beard sitting on top of the clouds – and since the sixties, at least, since Bishop John Robinson’s wonderful little book, ‘Honest to God’ [Robinson, J. (1963), Honest to God, London, SCM Press], we mostly don’t – how can we understand the Holy Trinity? Try the logical, a priori, back to logical first principles, way that Professor Richard Swinburne, the great Oxford philosopher of religion, has set out in his book ‘Was Jesus God?’ [Swinburne, R. (2008) Was Jesus God? Oxford, OUP, p.28f]. It goes like this.

There is a ‘divine person’ who is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free and eternal. Let us call that person ‘God’. Because He is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free and eternal, God is perfectly good.

God could exist alone, but being perfectly good means he won’t be selfish; He will have to have a object for His love. Perfect love is love of an equal: a perfectly good person will seek to bring about another such person, an equal, with whom to share all that he has. That other person is the Son.

But the Son didn’t, in fact, come after the Father. As a matter of logic, because they are perfect, ’At each moment of everlasting time the Father must always cause the Son to exist, and so always keep the Son in being.’

But then, Swinburne says, ’A twosome can be selfish’. ‘The love of the Father for the Son must include a wish to cooperate with the Son in further total sharing with an equal; and hence the need for a third member of the Trinity’ And that is the Holy Spirit.

For the same logical reasons, the Spirit isn’t something ‘made’ by God. As we say in the Creed, the Spirit ‘proceeds from’ the Father, or the Father and the Son. (Saying ‘proceeds from’ is perhaps a philosophical cop-out. We can’t say exactly how the Spirit gets here). The Three-in-One are, is, there. The Trinity is in a sense caused by the One, by God. But it is one with God. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Three ways of being God.

One more nugget of theology. Jesus says, at verse 24, about the heathen, the worldly people, ’If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have both seen and hated both me and my Father’. It seems that Jesus has a different concept of guilt or criminal responsibility from the one we’re familiar with. We say that ignorance is no defence. Something is either lawful or it isn’t. You might think that sin worked the same way. Something is either sinful or it isn’t, surely, isn’t it sinful, irrespective whether you know it or not? But Jesus has this different idea – you’ll find it also in St Paul’s letter to the Romans [7:7] – that heathens, who know nothing about sin, are not sinful. What makes someone sinful, or capable of being sinful, is being ‘fixed with knowledge’, as a lawyer would put it. So it looks as though ignorance is a defence, where sin is concerned.

But that is perhaps an indication that to ‘sin’ is not the same thing as to do bad things, to do evil, even. The point about sin is that it is a separation, a turning of your back on, God. And you can’t do that, if you don’t know about God in the first place. Of course, if you are sinful, if you have turned your back on God, you may well do bad things. If you are saved by grace, you will show it by your good works. If you aren’t, if you are lost, you will show it by the bad things you do. St Paul sets it out in Galatians chapter 5.

What a concentrated lesson for his disciples it was from Jesus!

– What it means that the Father is ‘the One who sent me’;

– what it means that because of me, the Son, you are no longer servants, or really slaves; and,

– what it means that Jesus will get the Spirit to come to you. (That is the ‘Advocate’, what the Prayer Book and the Authorised Version of the Bible calls the Comforter, ό παρακλητος).

The common thread, the theme of Jesus’ teaching here, might perhaps be relationships, relationships between people, and with God. And the currency used in those relationships. Hate – ‘the world hates you’; service – Jesus has bought us out, redeemed us, so we are no longer slaves; comfort, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter; and love – love from ‘the one who sent me’. And ‘the greatest of these is love’, as you know. [1 Corinthians 13]

Sometimes it’s good to think about these lessons that Jesus taught, never mind who was listening to him. It could even be you, as well as Simon-not-Peter or Jude-not-Judas.

Sermon for Holy Communion on the Feast of Christ the King, 26th November 2017, at St John’s, West Hartford, Conn.

[Ezekiel 34.11-16,20-24, Ephesians 1.15-23], Matthew 25.31-46

See http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=378268013 for the readings, and https://sjparish.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Nov-26-Pentecost-25-1030am.pdf for the full service booklet.

It’s really kind of you to welcome me back to St John’s to preach again. Susan, you have been amazingly gracious. Just when you were getting nicely settled in as Rector, Bill and Hope Eakins dropped in the suggestion that you might want to risk having me, this old Brit, to preach at the church – and just after Thanksgiving as well, when you are all celebrating having got rid of us colonial throw-backs. You’re truly kind.

Obviously I have been well briefed. I must stay away from anything too controversial or political. And I can’t really do the ancient Greek orator’s trick of doing a Philippic: you know, saying loudly, ‘I’m not going to say anything about Philip’, and then going on to say what an awful person he is. So no Brexit and Trump, then. Sorry.

Instead I want to get to grips with the sheep and the goats. Are you a sheep, or a goat? It’s a rigid division. On the right side, the Elysian Fields await you; but if you’re Billy Goat Gruff, nothing so nice.

That’s the thing I want to explore, with the sheep and the goats: divisions. People divided: divided, because they disagree. They disagree about what is best to do. And then, perhaps, do they have those divisions confirmed, ratified, by the Judge eternal?

At Thanksgiving you are celebrating independence from the colonial power that we were, the young nation standing on its own feet. It was a journey started by the Pilgrim Fathers, Puritans, who found themselves different from, at odds with, divided from, the society they were leaving in England. So I want to look at that division. It stemmed at least in part from the religious ferment and turmoil of the Reformation.

Apart from those things I’m not talking about, the other thing this year that has been of special note, not in our political, but in our spiritual life, has indeed been the Martin Luther 500th anniversary, 500 years since he is said to have posted up 95 points where he was at odds with the Roman Catholic Church, on the church door at Wittenberg in Saxony, which is the event which started the Reformation.

The Reformation led to civil war and persecution: the particularly ghastly thing about it was that the favourite way of getting rid of opponents was to burn them alive at the stake. We often spend time on Good Friday, during the Three Hours, reflecting on the dreadful mechanics of death by crucifixion. Death by burning seems to me to have been equally dreadful. And the penalty was so arbitrary and undeserved.

Think of Thomas Cranmer, the great scholar and Archbishop who created the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, and gave the new Church of England liturgy, forms of worship, which were for the first time in a language that could be ‘understanded of the people’, as they said, in English instead of Latin, although they were in fact based on, and continued the tradition of, services which in some cases could be traced back to the earliest Church Fathers. But even Cranmer was eventually burned to death, at the hands of the original ‘Bloody Mary’, Queen Mary, who brought back the Catholic faith for the duration of her reign.

This happened because Cranmer was a Protestant, at a time when it was no longer the right thing to be. We don’t know whether he met Martin Luther – some scholars, such as Diarmaid McCulloch, think he might well have done – but he certainly spent time in Zürich with Zwingli and Bucer.

It is fascinating to see how Cranmer reflected the new Reformation ideas, in the way in which he dealt, (in the Book of Common Prayer that he largely authored), with what was happening in the Holy Communion, at the point when the bread and the wine are shared.

The Roman church, the Catholics, believe in what they call ‘Transubstantiation’, the ‘Real Presence’ of Jesus’ body and blood in the bread and wine of the Holy Communion. Many of the Reformers did not believe in Transubstantiation. For them the bread and the wine were just that, bread and wine; just symbols of a greater thing.

The words in Cranmer’s Prayer Book changed, from the 1549 original, where the bread and wine are treated in the Catholic way, as actually being Christ’s body and blood, to his revision in 1552, perhaps after he met the other reformers: ‘Take and eate this, in remembraunce that Christ dyed for thee, and feede on him in thy hearte by faythe, with thankesgeving’ , which means they remain just that, bread and wine, just symbols, until, long after Cranmer’s awful death in 1556, in 1662 the final version of the Prayer Book (until the twentieth century revisions, here and in England), the 1662 Book has it all ways: ‘The body of our Lord Jesus Christ, broken for thee: Eat this, in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.’ In the first bit, the body, the actual body: but then a ‘remembrance’, a symbol: feeding, but by faith, not literally. Now, you can be anywhere on the Catholic – Protestant spectrum, and find spiritual resonance somewhere in those words, which we will still use, albeit in a slightly different order, in our service today.

But, the point is that, then, people were dying for those differences. Or feeling so alienated by them, that they opted to make a perilous voyage to a largely unknown land, and make a new life – as the Pilgrim Fathers did. It’s frankly strange – repugnant, even – to us today to think that the State could mete out the ultimate punishment, death, to a learned theologian such as Cranmer. But it did.

Belief, opinion, learned opinion, was a life-or-death affair. Now we can look back 500 years and shake our heads sagely, regretting how brutal life was then: we’re far too rational to let ourselves get into that kind of overreaction.

But I wonder. I promised not to talk about Brexit and Trump. But I will just say that it seems to be true both back home in England, over Brexit, and, dare I say, here, where Pres. Trump is concerned, that a climate has built up recently where people on each side not only feel strongly, very strongly: but they have stopped talking to each other. Certainly at home in the UK, the referendum on Brexit has divided people, divided people in a serious way. Old friends are avoiding each other; families are divided. There’s no sense of the old way of managing differences: so that we would say ‘Old so-and-so thinks such-and-such: I know he’s wrong, but it doesn’t matter. We’re still the best of friends.’ That really doesn’t seem to be working any more.

Time was, even recently, when we could disagree about quite serious things, and still be friends; it really was a case of hating the sin and loving the sinner. So what did Jesus the King do? The sheep and the goats are to be separated out, they are to be divided: but not by what they have thought, but what they have done. Jesus wasn’t requiring the elect, the people who were saved, the sheep, to subscribe to any particular world view. He was looking for acts of kindness, not manifestos.

‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ (Matt.25:35-36).

Hungry; thirsty; a stranger; no clothes; ill; in prison. You can construct all sorts of scenarios, which may well broadly reflect your political outlook, to explain how a person can be in any of those situations – and we might disagree.

Hungry and thirsty because they’ve made bad ‘life choices’, perhaps; a stranger, because they live somewhere that I don’t go to – and perhaps they don’t live the way we do; no clothes, probably not literally, but scruffy, down-at-heel, when – ‘if they cared about their appearance… ‘ You know.

Or they might be refugees, from a poor country. Are they ‘genuine refugees’, or just ‘economic migrants’? That’s a question which I suspect you would answer much more sympathetically than many of us Englishmen have been doing. The USA’s prosperity is built on the labour of economic migrants – but we are now trying to keep them out.

Or what if you are sick, if you are ill? You know one of the differences between us in England and you is that, I think, we have more restrictive rules about when you can fire people. Basically, our law says that an employer has to show that he has a fair reason for terminating someone’s employment, and it is presumed that it was not fair. But a fair reason, in English law, is if you are ill, ill for too long.

That’s one where I expect there might be disagreements. You know, on the one hand, you can’t run a business if you have to pay a salary for someone who’s not there: and on the other, think what it will do to your powers of recovery if, when you are in the depths of illness, you lose your livelihood. What’s your point of view? Which side are you on?

Jesus says, when I was in hospital, you came and visited me. Dare we say, you visited me, and didn’t bring me any bad news? I hope so. Here in the home of the US insurance industry, of The Hartford and the Aetna, let me dare say it – surely long-term sickness might be covered by an employer’s insurance. Or maybe that’s too much. I was ill, and you visited me. That’s what Jesus said.

I was in prison. You came to me. I was a criminal. I didn’t deserve anything. I had done something terrible. But surely there are limits? Some criminals are just beyond the pale. At home, the man called the Moors Murderer, Ian Brady, has died, and there was controversy where his remains should be buried. He killed a number of children, in appalling circumstances. Here, Charles Manson has died. Both of them I have heard called ‘evil personified’. But Jesus isn’t judging them. Jesus’ judgement, separating the sheep and the goats, is not about whether someone has been bad, been a sinner. Jesus would have visited them. He sat down and ate with sinners.

That’s the clue. That’s how it is with Jesus. Not what you’d think; perhaps not particularly reasonable. But good.

So I suspect that if we acknowledge Christ as King, and as judge eternal, as we are invited to do today, on this festival of Christ the King at the end of Thanksgiving, we may find a way to deal with our differences: even, dare I say, those real, deep differences over Brexit and Trump. Ultimately those differences may not really be that important. Instead we need to think sheep and goats. Acts of kindness, not manifestos.

Sermon for Evensong on Remembrance Sunday, 9th Nov 2014
John 15:9-17 – Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

I wondered whether tonight I should just read you some of those stories of heroism and self-sacrifice which perhaps we all know, and which Remembrance Sunday reminds us of. They are almost sermons in themselves. For example:

Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest imprisoned in Auschwitz, who volunteered to take another prisoner’s place when the Nazis selected ten men at random to be starved to death after someone had escaped; or

Jack Cornwell, the boy sailor, ‘Boy’ Cornwell, who was only 16 when he was mortally wounded at the battle of Jutland in 1916, who stayed at his post by the ship’s gun which had been hit and put out of action. He stayed there, although all the rest of the gun crew were dead, ‘in case he were needed’, as he said before he died. Or

Robert Leiper Lindsay, the superintendent of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company oil-well compound in ‘the side of Persia that slopes down into Mesopotamia’, as the story in Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia [Arthur Mee, ed., c.1922 (undated), London, The Educational Book Company Limited, vol.9, p.6194] puts it, who died shutting down an oil leak to a furnace and saved 300 colleagues. This was one of my favourite stories when I was about ten, and it still moves and shocks me.

‘The quick mind of Lindsay sees at once that the pumps must be stopped and the supply of oil feeding the furnaces must be cut off; so he calls to his assistant to shut off the pumps, and sets off to cut off the furnace supply. But to get to the furnaces he must pass through the fountain of streaming oil, and arrive at the furnaces with his clothes saturated with petroleum. He knows what the end will be, but he does not shrink. He passes through the oil shower, turns off the oil tap of the furnaces, and then turns away, and falls, a blazing torch.’

Terrible stories. So moving. Would we be so brave, we ask ourselves. The first two stories were from wartime: Father Kolbe in the Second World War, and Jack Cornwell VC in the First. Robert Leiper Lindsay was in 1918. As you will know, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, that he worked for, became BP.

Jesus’ great saying, ‘Greater love hath no man ..’, is about love. He has said, ‘This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you’ [John 15:12]. It isn’t the sort of soft love, companionable love, that Jesus means here. This is sacrifice, violent, painful. Like Lindsay, a ‘blazing torch’.

We can say amen to that. We know what terrible sacrifice Jesus went on to make, how He suffered.

But the mention of Jack Cornwell and Maximilian Kolbe, those wartime martyrs, and the fact that we are remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice in wars, makes me think, what is the point of all that undoubted bravery in war? What was it for?

It is reported that, before Jack Cornwell, Boy Cornwell, died, he was told that the Battle of Jutland had been won; and he was pleased. ‘The strife is o’er, the battle done.’ He had died for his friends.

Similarly Maximilian Kolbe and Robert Lindsay, by their sacrifice of themselves, saved others. They died in order that others might live.

Now there are two other sacrifices which we have to consider today. First, our forces – now in harm’s way again in Iraq. Who will their sacrifices save? It is very difficult to be sure. We have seemingly moved a long way from the Ten Commandments and ‘Thou shalt not kill’. Even back in the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas restated the ancient Roman doctrine of the ‘Just War’. He suggested three criteria (Summa Theologiae vol 35, 40(1)):

war must be waged by the ‘due authorities’;
The cause must be just; and
Those waging war must intend to promote good, and avoid evil.

Right authority, just cause, right intention. Even so, Thomas must have reflected that his concept of a ‘just war’ didn’t sit very easily with what Jesus had said, notably in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also’ (Matt. 5:39).

Thomas wrote, ‘The Lord’s words, “I say to you, offer the wicked man no resistance”, must always be borne in mind, and we must be ready to abandon resistance and self-defence if the situation calls for that.’ That begs the question when ‘the situation’ would call for resistance to be abandoned. What could be such a situation?

Why would one make war in the first place, why would one feel justified in going against Jesus’ command of peace and non-violence: His commands, not only ‘thou shalt not kill’, but also ‘turn the other cheek’?

St Augustine, Augustine of Hippo, writing, in the fourth century, much earlier than Thomas, identified another reason for which a Christian might be justified in using force, which I think is perhaps the only really good reason – as a matter of charity: to go to the aid of his neighbour who was being attacked.

This is clearly a really difficult area; when it isn’t a case of going to the aid of Poland, when it isn’t a case of a threat to our own independence, but a bloody dispute between governments whose legitimacy is in some cases questionable, and who have shown brutality and a contempt for the rule of law, on the one side, as, say, may be argued to be the case in Syria and Iraq, and opposing factions upholding a particularly vicious and intolerant type of militant Islam – who are killing Christians and other non-Moslems simply for not being Moslems, unlike their opponents, the dubious governments, so unsatisfactory in so many ways, but who at least allow freedom of religion. Where is the ‘just war’ in this context?

But I have left to the end the biggest self-sacrifice, Jesus himself. Greater love hath no man. ‘This is my blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins’ (The Communion, at p.256 in the Book of Common Prayer). Greater love hath no man, than that he die for his friends. Is it, die instead of his friends? That was Maximilian Kolbe. Or was it to help his friends? That would be like Jack Cornwell or Robert Leiper Lindsay.

The idea is said to be like taking someone else’s punishment for them – again like Maximilian Kolbe. We are sinful; instead of punishing us, as He could, God put up His own son, and punished him instead. ‘Who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who 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’: that’s what the Prayer Book says, in the Prayer of Consecration on p. 255.

I hope that God isn’t really like that. The language of human sacrifice – or of blood feuds: having ‘satisfaction’ is the language of D’Artagnan, the language of duels – ‘redemption’, paying the price, the price of sin, does not really square with the idea of a loving God. The idea of ‘substitutionary atonement’, as it’s called, seems to me to be very barbaric.

We may be fallen people. We may indeed be sinful. But what does that really mean? It surely doesn’t mean that we have a price on our heads, which has to be paid, or else we go into the fires of Hell.

‘Sin’ isn’t a question of persistent badness, or criminality, or just plain evil. All those things might be signs of sin, but they aren’t sin itself. In the New Testament, ‘sin’ is the translation of the Greek ‘αμαρτία, from the verb ‘αμαρτάνω, I ‘miss the mark’, I don’t hit the target. It has a connotation of distance, separation from the goal. So sin is separation, distancing, from God’s kingdom. ‘Remission’ of sins is forgiveness, release from prison.

I would like to emphasise not only the sacrifice, Jesus’ greater love, on the Cross, but also the Resurrection. God is assuring us that not only are we grateful for Jesus’ taking upon himself the punishment that perhaps we might have deserved, but also that it isn’t a story with a sad and pointless end – like the story of so many wars.

Here ‘The strife is o’er, the battle won’; but instead of a posthumous VC, we have a living God, who raised Jesus from the dead. What a sign! Let us indeed remember them: let us remember those who gave their lives in order that we might be free. But let us always remember that biggest, that most meaningful, sacrifice. Greater love hath no man – Jesus had that love, and it was for us.

Sermon for Mattins on the 16th Sunday after Trinity, 15th September 2013
1 Timothy 1:12-17

‘Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all who truly turn to him: …
This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.’

I’m sure the passage in the Holy Communion service in the Prayer Book (p. 252), called the ‘Comfortable Words,’ is very familiar. In it come these words, which I want to look at this morning, and which were in our first lesson. For completeness, I ought to remind you of the words which come immediately after these Comfortable Words in the Bible, namely, ‘… sinners, of whom I am the foremost’, literally in the Greek, ‘of whom I am the first’ – number one. So all together, the quotation, in the NRSV translation, is, ‘The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost’.

Scholars have said that this letter to Timothy, St Paul’s constant companion, isn’t really by St Paul, but is a letter in the style of St Paul, ‘pseudonymous’, written by an early church leader. Anyway, most of it is consistent with things that St Paul clearly did write in his other letters. But what do these ‘comfortable words’ really mean?

They’re deceptively simple. They describe the work that Jesus came among mankind to do. Not what He was, but what He did. The objective, the purpose, for Jesus coming among us. To save sinners. Among whom, the writer of the letter in the guise of St Paul claimed to be No 1, the No 1 sinner. That means that, if St Paul, or someone who writes in the guise of St Paul, says he’s in it up to his neck, so are all of us.

We need to understand first what a ‘sinner’ is. Is it just a bad person? It is not just badness, but knowing that it is against God. The writer says that although he was ‘a blasphemer, a persecutor and a man of violence’, he ‘received mercy because [he] acted ignorantly in unbelief.’ He didn’t know. But if you know you are doing wrong, and still do it, that is sinful. Remember St Paul wrestling with this in Romans chapter 7: ‘For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate. … But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.’ (Romans 7:15,17)

So St Paul suggests that someone who doesn’t know what they are doing, who has no conscience about it, may be doing wrong, but it isn’t sinful. Sin is a crime against God. Idolatry – ranking something other than God higher than God – is perhaps the quintessential sin. Just saying that makes us realise that this is still very relevant today. We can all think of instances where it has been more important, we thought, to do something, something where God didn’t come into it, rather than to take time for God or to follow His commandments. We are still prone to worshipping idols.

To put it another way, sin is something which pushes us away from God, which separates us from Him. What utter bleakness, if there is in fact nothing higher, nothing greater, no ultimate heart of Being; if life is nasty, brutish and short, and there is no purpose in it.

But we are told that Jesus came amongst us to ‘save sinners’. How did He do it? What is this ‘saving’ process? How does it work? (Unfortunately, we might be tempted to ask if it works at all, seeing that dreadful things, sins surely, are still all around us.) Is it true that ‘Love’s redeeming work is done’, as we sing in Charles Wesley’s great hymn?

In simpler times perhaps, people might have been content, might indeed have been ‘comforted’, by the thought that somehow Jesus had ‘paid a ransom for our souls’, that by his death on the cross He had paid a price of our sins – a ‘full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world’, as the Prayer Book puts it.

But I would hope that we couldn’t really believe in a God who, on the one hand, is a loving creator, but on the other, must countenance human sacrifice if His terrible vengeance is to be bought off. But Jesus’ work isn’t some kind of a ‘transaction’, some crude and brutal trade-off. Even back in the time of Abraham, God would not let Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac to him. (Genesis 22)

Nevertheless there is an element of costliness, of sacrifice, in what Jesus did. ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13, AV). This is still the greatest love.

There is a calendar of ‘holy days’ which the church celebrates. Various saints and holy people are commemorated throughout the year. A few weeks ago, on 14th August, our church remembered, commemorated, a modern saint, Father Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan monk who was in Auschwitz. At morning prayers on 14th August every year we listen to his story.

It was believed, wrongly, as it turned out, that someone had escaped from the part of the prison, Auschwitz, where Father Maximilian was held. The SS seized ten men at random to be executed, horribly, by starvation, as a deterrent to others who might try to escape. Father Maximilian asked to take the place of one of them, so that that man might see his wife and children again. He gave his life in that man’s place. It is a very terrible and moving story.

That story, I think, gives us a better understanding of how Jesus ‘saves’ sinners. It wasn’t just a question of Father Maximilian making the ultimate sacrifice or being inspired by Jesus’ willingness to die on the cross, not just a question of his trying to follow Jesus’ faithfulness, wrestling with temptation in the garden of Gethsemane: ‘Father, … take this cup away from me’, but eventually accepting the Father’s will.

If that was how salvation works, by inspiring us to follow Jesus so closely that we never sin again, not many of us would make it, not many of us would qualify. Just as St Paul pointed out in Romans, we are sinful. We can’t help it. Jesus’s death on the cross hasn’t put an end to our still being challenged by sin. So salvation doesn’t just work by inspiring us not to be sinful any more – although again, there’s an element of truth. What Jesus did does inspire us – and it may well make us better people. But that in itself wouldn’t justify saying that He ‘saved’ us.

By his supreme expression of love, Father Maximilian triumphed over the evil of Auschwitz. He has never been forgotten. Even the guards were astonished at what he was willing to suffer. The reaction of the SS guards was very reminiscent of what the Roman centurion said at the foot of the cross. The Holy Spirit was definitely at work, in 1941, in Maximilian Kolbe. It wasn’t annihilation. It was a victory. Father Maximilian Kolbe won a victory.

Jesus won a victory. Not a blood sacrifice. Not just a wonderful example – but something extra, over and beyond sacrificial love and inspiration. It was a triumph – Christ the Victor. Christ had conquered death. In so doing, Christ revealed the power of God at work. That revelation is that God cares for us, even though we may be cut off from Him – or though we may cut ourselves off: even though we may be sinners.

The idea is that we are like the lost sheep, the lost coin or the prodigal son. The prodigal son acknowledged that he had messed up, he had missed the mark in life – and ‘missing the mark’ is the literal meaning of the word we translate as ‘sinning’. But his father welcomed him back, no questions asked. The fatted calf – if it had happened today, that would be roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, using Kobe beef – was his father’s free gift, his ‘grace’, in religious language. He sinned: he repented: he was welcomed home.

This still works. Maximilian Kolbe proved it in 1941, and I’m sure that, if we only knew about them, there are lots of saints at work today, also making colossal sacrifices, sustained to do it by their faith.

You might still think that all this talk of ‘sinners’ doesn’t mean you. But let me remind you of one of the ‘sentences of scripture’ which I read before the service: it’s from the first letter of St John, chapter 1:

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us; but if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

So reflect on these comfortable words in the week ahead. They still mean something significant, they still offer real comfort, even for you.