Archives for posts with tag: st John’s gospel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon for Evensong on the Fifth Sunday after Easter, 26th May 2019

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Matthew 28:1-10, 16-20 (see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=425693885) – But what about the Bigots?

‘Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem.’

You can tell, even without reading the whole book, that this passage at the end of the book of the prophet Zephaniah turns things around. The first two chapters of the book are not joyful; they are more like lamentations. The kingdom of Israel, the people who made the exodus from Egypt, who had David and Solomon as kings, had split into two kingdoms, the northern kingdom called Israel, and the southern kingdom, Judah, in which was Jerusalem.

In 721 BC the northern kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians. Zephaniah was prophesying some time after that, probably about 100 years later, in Jerusalem. The sub-heading in one of my Bibles on this passage is, ‘Doom on Judah and her neighbours’; so the first part of the book is all about how the kingdom of Israel, which has become the province of Judah, has gone to pot.

The great day of the Lord is near, …

That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of wasteness and desolation, …. And I will bring distress upon men, that they shall walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the Lord: (Zephaniah 1)

Why is the Lord cross with his people? Zephaniah says,

“Woe to her that is filthy and polluted, to the oppressing city!

She obeyed not the voice; she received not correction; she trusted not in the Lord; she drew not near to her God.’ (Zephaniah 3:1-2)

This was all nearly 3000 years ago, but there are definite resonances with things that are happening here today. I wrote this sermon originally on Friday, and I didn’t think we would know the outcome of the EU election until after 8 o’clock tonight, as we have to wait until all polling stations in all EU member states are closed – and most of the countries are having their vote today.

I suspect that it will turn out to have been a strange business, and whatever the outcome, we will all continue to have a more or less uneasy feeling that something is wrong with our society, and with our country, at the moment.

Whether it goes as far as the sort of thing that Zephaniah was prophesying about is obviously a moot point, but it seems to me that it’s not controversial to say that, wherever you are in relation to modern politics, whatever you believe in, this is a time to be concerned and worried.

The idea that comes from Zephaniah in the part which was our first lesson today, ‘Sing, O daughter of Zion’, … ‘be glad and rejoice’, is something which I think we would all respond very well to. We would love to feel that everything was right with the world, and that we could relax and be joyful.

Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. I don’t think that it’s going to help very much for me to try to spell out to what extent any of the competing parties and interest groups – ‘interest groups’, because the Brexit Party isn’t a political party, it’s actually a limited company – it isn’t going to be easy or productive at this stage to try to relate aspects of each of these people to the eternal verities which we are trying to understand and to carry out in our Christian witness.

It’s no good trying to say whether one or other party or interest group is better or worse at trying to bring the various parts of society back together, so as to finish the various arguments which have so divided people. It isn’t even worth it at this stage to try to express a view on what is going to help people materially, or perhaps more realistically, to hurt them least, in the various proposals advanced by the various parties. People are not listening to rational arguments.

What would Jesus say? I really don’t know. But I think it’s worth reminding everyone that it’s a good question. If we sit down quietly and try to work through the various propositions which have been put to us, from the time of the referendum three years ago until now, it might be a very good exercise to look at each one in the light of that question.

What would Jesus have done? What would Jesus have thought about these various things?

I went on Thursday night to our friends at St Martin’s in East Horsley for a talk which they had organised, by the long-serving former MP, Chris Mullin, who is well known for his many books, including ‘A very British Coup’, which was made into a TV series. After he had given his talk, from the audience a lady stood up and, I think, rather shocked everybody. I should tell you that the audience was about 30 people, and they could easily have been from here. Normal bods, tending towards the middle-aged if not slightly elderly; middle-class, middle-aged, respectable people. When this lady stood up, asked her question and made her point, she looked exactly the same as everyone else. But she wasn’t.

She told us that although she had grown up in this country, had lived here for many years and had worked as a solicitor for a City firm, she was not English. She was German, and her father had been head of the UK division of the great German engineering company Siemens, which has a number of factories here, and has had for many years. She is married to an Englishman. After the referendum result, her husband had said that he thought that it was not going to very nice for their family to carry on living in England – meaning, not very nice for his wife, for his German wife. So they now live in Spain. There they have recently bought a new car. One of their neighbours, she said, wondered whether it was going to be a Range Rover, and said he hoped that it wasn’t – because they didn’t want to see anyone buying anything British for the time being.

And I, as I think some of you will already have heard, had a similar experience shortly after the Brexit referendum when I went to Hamburg, and some of my German friends, several of whom have been friends for 30 or more years, all said more or less the same thing to me, the same simple sentence: they said, ‘But we thought that you were our friends’. Imagine how I felt.

No more comments on that. We all have strong views. But what would Jesus say about it? I wonder.

Let’s move on to our second Bible lesson, from St Matthew’s Gospel. It’s the resurrection story, the empty tomb, which we have read about in St John’s and St Mark’s Gospels already, during this Easter time.

For some reason the compilers of the Lectionary have missed a bit out. You’ll notice that, in St Matthew chapter 28, tonight we have heard verses 1 to 10 and then 16 to 20. The missing bit is a story, which appears only in St Matthew’s Gospel, about the chief priests bribing the Roman soldiers who had been set to guard the tomb – and again, we read about these guards only in this Gospel – bribing these soldiers to spread a story that Jesus’ disciples had come in the dead of night and taken Jesus’ body away. The passage ends, ‘This story is still told among the Jews to this day’. Perhaps that’s why it’s left out now in our lessons, as it could be taken as a a point against Judaism.

That’s one bit which is unique to St Matthew, not too crucial. But the other unique bit is far better known. It is the Great Commission, as it is called.

Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:

Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.

It is the great call to Evangelism, to spreading the Good News, the ‘Evangelia’,(Ευαγγελία) the Greek word for good news. Jesus assured us that He is still with us: he said, ‘... lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.’

I began this sermon with a rather gloomy recital of the prophet Zephaniah’s words of lamentation about the godless state of the people of Israel in Jerusalem, and I invited comparisons with the state of our nation today. I invited you to think what Jesus might have to say about it. That is a really tough question.

But what about the Great Commission? How are we doing on that one? Our British reserve tends to make us rather coy about announcing our Christianity to people in public. But increasingly, people are growing up without having read the Bible or been to Sunday School. It’s important, therefore, that we have our family services at St Mary’s and that our PCC is beginning to think about having a youth worker. We invited Esther Holley, the children and young people’s minister from St Andrew’s in Cobham, to come and talk to us about her work, and we all found her account inspiring. As a result of Esther’s work, St Andrew’s has a solid group of children and some teenagers. But nothing stands still. Esther has been accepted for ordination training, so they will be looking for her successor soon. Maybe we should start making moves in this direction too.

And finally, on the question how we are carrying out Jesus’ commission to ‘teach all nations’, I think that it is vitally important that we maintain the warmest welcome, here at St Mary’s, to our services, to our church family, and to our other activities based around St Mary’s Hall, the best church hall for miles around.

I personally would like us to look at joining an organization called ‘Inclusive Church’, which encourages churches not just to be welcoming to all, but to advertise that they are. It’s the old story of the two milkmen competing for business (you can tell it’s an old story, because competition on the same milk round disappeared years ago), and one milkman put a big banner on his milk float saying, ‘We deliver milk every day’. Of course his competitor did the same thing, but they didn’t advertise it. The milkman with the banner doubled his sales!

The same reasoning, I think, would work for us. If I have moved into this area and I’m looking for a church to go to: if I’m going through a tough time in my life and I’d like to find somewhere to say prayers: if I want my kids to learn what’s in the Bible: what will St Mary’s be like inside? Now if there’s a big sign outside saying that everyone is welcome – and I’ve put a picture of an Inclusive Church sign from another church with my sermon on the website [see above] – then people can feel confident, and they will dare to open our door and come in.

I know that not everyone agrees with this idea. Some people say we are already a really welcoming church. No need to join organisations or advertise – although I would gently say that it’s noticeable that we have no black people in our congregation. Somebody once even said to me, in this context, ‘But what about the bigots? We mustn’t upset the bigots!’

Well that perhaps takes me full circle, to the outcome of the European election. What about the bigots? What would Jesus say? I think he would say, ‘Look who I have lunch with already. People get shirty that I sit down with tax gatherers and sinners. But they are welcome!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look! He is coming with the clouds;

   every eye will see him,

even those who pierced him;

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

So it is to be. Amen.

 

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

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

Every eye will see him,

even those who pierced him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For all the saints who from their labours rest,

Who thee by faith before the world confessed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Smith

Sermon for Evensong on the 24th Sunday after Trinity, 11th November 2018

Isaiah 10:22-11:9, John 14:1-29

Drawing Hands (1948) lithograph by M.C. Escher

This is Evensong on the 24th Sunday after Trinity. That is the rather esoteric description which you find in the church calendar. It is also a very special Remembrance Sunday, the 11th day of the 11th month of the hundredth year since the end of the First World War. That conflict was so terrible, and the human consequences so great, that many people lost their faith in God. How could a good and loving God allow such terrible things to happen?

To some extent that is a question, or was a question, that didn’t really touch individuals. It was really about the great affairs of state. To what extent could God guide the great leaders of the nations? How could a good God for instance countenance the use of poison gas? Theologians have wrestled with those difficult questions ever since, and the answers reached have tended to argue that there is evidence of God’s benign activity in the world as well as all the awful things; that the bad things are not God’s fault, as we have been created with a degree of autonomy, free will. God has not created us as robots; there would be no meaning to the ideas of the right and the good if it were not possible also to have evil, and that, in their relations with the Almighty, people can either be faithful, doing what God wants, or they can be sinful, which means separated from God.

But that was this morning, that was all about Remembrance Sunday, the hundredth Remembrance Sunday. But what about tonight? Tonight we are looking at two visions, Isaiah’s vision of the coming of the Messiah and the effect of it – ‘they shall not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain’ – and all these wonderful new friendships, animals that usually eat each other becoming friends at peace with each other: the wolf and the lamb, and the little child leading them.

And then in St John’s Gospel we have this great passage in chapter 14, ‘In my father’s house are many mansions’. I think that ‘mansions’ is far better than the bathos of ‘In my father’s house are many rooms’ – or ‘dwelling-places’, which is the way some modern translations of the Bible put it. In Greek, ‘mansions’ is translated from μοναι, from μενω, I remain – the ‘… -main’ bit in ‘remain’. It turns into ‘maneo’ in Latin, from which there is a noun ‘mansio’, a ‘staying-place’: a mansion. The Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible in the 4th century, largely by Jerome, which the Roman Catholic Church used till 1979, has ‘in domo Patris mansiones multae sunt’. William Tyndale’s translation in 1525, on which the King James Bible is based, just transliterated the same word, from ‘mansiones’ to ‘mansions’. Obviously the meaning of ‘mansion’ in English has evolved since the early 16th and 17th century, certainly since1611, when the Authorised Version came out. But it’s much more memorable than ‘rooms’, I feel – and it leads to a theological reflection.

Leaving aside the etymology, I have always loved the puzzle of contemplating how a house can itself contain mansions. It is almost as though the two up-two down cottage, in which I originally lived in Anyards Road when I first came to this area in 1990, somehow contained three or four of Eaton Park Road’s finest footballers’ palaces. If the kingdom of God is like that, a house with many mansions, I’ve thought, surely there is a strong message there, that the kingdom of God is literally beyond human comprehension, beyond the bounds of our logic!

If that was all there was in this Gospel, I think we would tend to give up on it. We would just throw up our hands in horror and say, ‘It’s all beyond me’. No one knows; and what no one knows no one tends to bother about. And that is, perhaps, Doubting Thomas’ point. ‘Lord, how can we know the way?’ What is it? Jesus answers, ‘I am: I am the way, the truth and the life’.

We can’t fully understand the workings of God. The world we live in is not one of these impossible pictures by MC Escher. Not a staircase that you climb, only to find that you are at the bottom of the same staircase. Not a hand holding a pencil, drawing a picture of a hand holding a pencil, drawing a hand… and so on. Nightmarish perfection, in which there is no beginning and no end.

We believe that Jesus was God – is God, in that he is beyond time. But crucially, he was, for a while, placed in space and time. He came to Palestine and he spent 33 years, living as a human being. He had a human family, a mother, a father, brothers and sisters. For three momentous years he went around with his 12 disciples lecturing to enormous crowds of people. If he had been around today, he would have become an Internet sensation, with millions of followers on YouTube and Twitter.

We believe that he was both God and man, because of the evidence that he went beyond what a mere man could do, most crucially, in coming back from the dead. But also, in all the other various miracles which Jesus did, he demonstrated his divine nature.

That may be a controversial proposition. If you don’t believe that Jesus was more than just human, then St John chapter 14 is not going to mean very much to you. Jesus is asserting that if you know him, then you know God.

There is another ‘dimension’ to God, if you like, which Jesus describes as being his Father, or ‘heaven’, even; it is beyond our comprehension, but nevertheless, real. I am the way, the truth and the life. If you follow me, you will get into one of those mansions, those mansions which look impossible but which are, really, to be found, on the holy mountain where the wolf lies down with the lamb.

So what does all this have to do with remembrance? In a sense, of course, remembrance is just as impossible for us as making sense of MC Escher. How can we remember, when we were not there? It isn’t so much remembrance as history, but that doesn’t make it any less real, and moreover, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’, as George Santayana wrote. We could also say that history need not repeat itself, because if we know what is coming, we can avoid it.

If we look at the industrialised slaughter of the First World War and indeed the way in which the unfairness of the Treaty of Versailles led to the rise of Nazism and the Second World War, we might think that these great affairs of state, those great seismic movements in history, are outside the scope of what any of us as little individuals can possibly influence; but we can reflect that, just as the greatness of God is ineffable, immeasurable, unknowable, still God has come down as one human being on God’s holy Mountain, the kingdom of heaven, where ‘they shall not hurt or destroy’. The lion will lie down with the lamb and be friends. There are no nationalities in the kingdom of heaven. But there is love.

Sermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday of Advent, 4th December 2016

1 Kings 18:17-39, John 1:19-28

‘John Vavassour de Quentin Jones
Was very fond of throwing stones
At Horses, People, Passing Trains,
But ‘specially at Window-panes.

Like many of the Upper Class
He liked the Sound of Broken Glass.

It bucked him up and made him gay:
It was his favourite form of Play.’ (Hilaire Belloc, 1930)

Those of you, who have watched, perhaps with consternation, the referendum and its aftermath in this country and the election of the seemingly appalling Trump in the USA, might like to pause and reflect on these words by Hilaire Belloc. John Vavassour de Quentin Jones. In the first half of the last century, ‘like many of the Upper Class, …he liked the sound of broken glass.’

People sometimes rebel in a very irrational way. John Vavassour de Quentin Jones lost his inheritance because a stone which he threw hit his rich uncle by mistake, and he cut him out of his will. John Vavassour just wanted to break things: he clearly had no idea what his actions would lead to.

I think one is tempted to say, that neither did many of those, who voted for Brexit or who voted for Donald Trump, know what they were voting for either. These were votes against things rather than votes for anything in particular.

They were expressions of alienation. When Michael Gove – who used to write leaders for The Times, and so presumably is an educated man – encouraged his supporters to have nothing to do with experts, he pandered to this sense of alienation. It has been said that this populist backlash is a rejection of the elite, of the intelligentsia, of metropolitan liberal sentiment.

In this climate, we Christians are somewhat on the back foot, in the face of a rising tide of secularism. It might seem rather far-fetched, to imagine a scenario today like that described in our first lesson: a sort of bake-off of sacrifices, in which the prophet Elijah is bringing King Ahab back into the fold after he had lost his faith in the One True God and started to worship the Baals.

Elijah organised a ‘spectacular’. ‘You call on your God and I will call on mine, and let’s see whose god can cook the beef on the altar’. And if we are to believe the story in the Bible in 1 Kings, God responded to Elijah’s prayers and roasted Elijah’s ox in a spectacular way. Whereas of course Baal, being just a figment of the heathen imagination, did nothing – or rather, wasn’t even there at all.

So not surprisingly, Elijah was listened to. He was the greatest of the prophets. He was in direct touch with God. He was God’s mouthpiece on earth. But we can’t imagine anything happening even remotely like Elijah’s spectacular today.

In St John’s Gospel, the introduction to the Good News, to the story of Jesus himself, is the story of John the Baptist, ‘preparing the way of the Lord’. Again, it’s really difficult to imagine a modern scenario which is anything like this. Just as, by and large, people don’t become influential or command an audience by doing miracles, as Elijah did, so if you take another step back and try to imagine the scenario involving John the Baptist, it is very, very different from our experience today.

What John was doing is mentioned almost just in passing: he was baptising people. The account in St John’s Gospel concentrates much more on the significance of what he was doing. ‘Why baptizest thou them, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet?’ Today, if you talk about baptism, it is synonymous with christening, with Christian initiation of a little child; and it’s also how the little child gets his or her name. Naming, not repentance.

There is no equivalent of what was by all accounts a mass movement, something that people naturally did, to go and wash ritually in the river Jordan: to wash away their sins and iniquities, as well as becoming physically clean.

You will recall that passage in St Mark chapter 7, where the Pharisees pull Jesus up for eating without washing his hands first. I’ve always felt that if you came across that passage for the first time today, you might protest that, from a public health point of view, anyone following Jesus’s advice might well catch some disease or other! They even saw things like washing completely differently.

If we try to tell people about the true meaning of Christmas, and the Gospel story, I think we should be a bit cautious about the fact that quite a lot of the story reflects a world which is totally different from our world. I think that there is a danger that people listening to Christians talking about the Gospel and the true meaning of Christmas may be put off, may even be alienated.

There was somebody in the audience on the BBC Question Time programme on Thursday night, which came from Wakefield in Yorkshire, a very assertive and gruff person, who, despite the fact that he was shaven-headed and dressed as a football hooligan, was said to be some kind of teacher.

He loudly asserted on several occasions during the programme that everyone who had voted to leave the EU had been voting to leave the Single Market. He said things like, ‘Everybody knew that a vote to leave meant a vote to leave the Single Market’. Now leaving aside the point that, as a matter of fact what that man said can be challenged on a number of levels, starting with the fact that the question put to the referendum was just a simple choice between leaving or remaining in the EU, and nothing else, the striking thing was that he was impervious to reason.

I’m not sure what subject he was a teacher of, but one hopes, for his pupils’ sake, that it was woodwork or PE: because although several people on the panel gave him very clear and well argued responses, which if true, completely contradicted his proposition that, if you voted one way in the referendum, that automatically meant that you were in favour of something else, he was completely deaf to all argument. But maybe that’s being rude to woodwork and PE teachers. This alleged teacher wasn’t interested in argument, or reasoning, or experts, and he certainly discounted all the posh people on the panel. They were obviously not gritty or Yorkshire enough for him to take them at all seriously. Sadly, almost the whole audience was with him.

So what would a prophet today have to do or say in order to carry conviction? What is the good news, or the call to obedience, if we follow Elijah, that a prophet today should be crying in the wilderness? What is the equivalent of baptism in the river Jordan for today’s people? How would a preacher get through to the man on Question Time?

I’m not making a political point. I’m not saying whether Brexit is good or bad, or Trump is good or bad, but just that, in those cases, people seem to have ignored reasoned argument and voted as a sort of knee-jerk reaction, voted for something negative, something which they perceive as not coming from the ivory tower of the elite liberal establishment.

People have in effect been throwing stones. And they’re in very good company. John Quentin de Vavassour Jones came out of the top drawer of society ‘.., like many of the Upper Class,… he liked the sound of broken glass’. This man in Wakefield, who asserted his non sequitur so positively, that something unsaid was the unanimous will of the people, this man was voting for something which would almost certainly harm him: it would very likely harm a lot of his fellow citizens. But he didn’t care. He was throwing stones.

How do we Christians deal with this? How do we deal with somebody who is impervious to reason, and is convinced that Christianity is wrong, or does not have anything relevant to say, or is going to disappear anyway? Because if you do follow that rather bleak outlook, and believe that there is no God, would you necessarily think that it is wrong to be xenophobic, or racist?

Unless you believe that it was God who created all people equal in his sight, how would you justify the concept of human rights? How would you avoid being led astray by seemingly reasonable voices, like a friendly man in the pub telling you that he’s not a racist, but that we just have too many immigrants – even though there is ample evidence that immigration is really good for this country and that it fulfils a number of really important needs?

Even though there is considerable evidence that the National Health Service will be in even greater trouble if it loses its doctors and nurses from abroad, both from the EU and from outside, although there is plenty of evidence that immigrants as a whole contribute over 30% more in taxes than they receive in benefits – even though there is this positive evidence, there are still people in numbers who will parrot sentiments which are not rational. If they’re not racist, they are very similar to it.

The other irrational thing is that the anti-immigration sentiment seems to be strongest where there aren’t actually any – or where there are very few – immigrants. The audience in Wakefield the other night cheered every xenophobic, little-England statement to the rafters. But I believe there are hardly any immigrants from the EU in Wakefield.

This is very strange. Clearly people were not operating rationally. They were not listening to the experts, and they were not bothering to think about where our moral imperatives come from. If you are a Christian, you will believe that we are all children of God. If you are a Christian, and indeed if you are a Jew or a Moslem, you will believe that God has told us how to behave, in His Ten Commandments.

‘Blah, blah, blah’. Yes, blah, blah, blah. For some people, what I’m saying is just meaningless noise. I wonder if that scares you as much as it does me. Let us pray that God will make himself known, not in some cosmic bake-off, but in everything that we say and do, and that we will not be dismissed as people with nothing relevant to say.

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.’