Archives for posts with tag: St Paul

Sermon for Choral Evensong on Whit Sunday 2019

Exodus 33:7-20; 2 Corinthians 3:4-18 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=427016797

‘O King of Heaven, thou the comforter and spirit of truth,

Thou who art everywhere and bringeth all things to perfection,

Treasury of goodness and life-giver,

Come and dwell in us, cleanse us from all our sins,

And save us, O Lord.’

This is the prayer, originally from the Orthodox church, one of the so-called ‘trisagion’ prayers, ‘thrice-holy’ prayers, which Godfrey uses as a vestry prayer before all our services at St Mary’s. It is a prayer for the Holy Spirit to come; it is in effect a restatement of that great line of the Lord’s Prayer, Thy Kingdom Come, which has been the subject of the ‘wave of prayer’ from Ascension Day until Pentecost. The prayer movement called ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ was originally started by our Archbishops, Justin and John, in 2016, and has spread out all over the world.

Even now, at the same time as we are worshipping at St Mary’s, there is a big outdoor service taking place on Stag Hill outside the Cathedral in Guildford, bringing to an end the nine days of prayer and celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit among the disciples, the tongues of fire on their heads and the ability, all of a sudden, to speak in a variety of languages; so that each person who heard them thought they were speaking in his or her own native language. It was described in Acts 2, one of the lessons this morning.

It is a time to celebrate; a time to be close to God. Being close to God, in the Old Testament, at the time of Moses, meant not being allowed to see Him, so great was the splendour of the Almighty. He led the Israelites, concealed in a pillar of cloud: and he showed himself to Moses in the burning bush; but the splendour, the glory of the Lord, was so great that Moses’ face reflected the glory of the Lord so brightly that nobody could look straight at him. He had to cover himself up, be veiled, when he came out of the tabernacle when he had been meeting the Lord. As we heard in our first lesson from the book of Exodus, no-one apart from Moses could look on the face of God and survive.

But now, as St Paul says, in our second lesson from his second Letter to the Corinthians, the veil has fallen away, because of the presence of Jesus. It’s no longer the case that no-one can look at God and survive; because God is with us, God is in us. St Paul has this great idea of our being ‘in Christ’, which is a sort of upside-down way of saying that we have Christ in us – and the Christ that is in us is the Holy Spirit.

We pray, ‘Come and dwell in us; cleanse us from all our sins, and save us, O Lord.’ Thy Kingdom come. That Kingdom really has two sides to it. There is the Holy Spirit coming and dwelling in us, so that we are in Christ, which is a personal salvation for us as individuals: and there is the coming of the Kingdom which we pray for in the Holy Communion service, when we pray for that day ‘when your kingdom comes, and justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth’ [Common Worship: Holy Communion Order One, Eucharistic Prayer E – p 197]: where we pray for a public salvation, we could say. Being in Christ is private salvation, and when ‘justice and mercy rule in all the earth’, that is public salvation.

The Holy Spirit is everywhere, public and private. ‘Thou who art everywhere and bringeth all things to perfection’. Christians receive the Holy Spirit in various ways. We here are cool Northerners, I don’t mean ‘North of Watford’, but Northern Europeans. Singing a Moody and Sankey hymn, and responding ‘Amen’ with feeling after a rousing sermon, is as hot as it gets for us.

But not far away there are ‘house churches’, Pentecostal churches, where they invite the Spirit to come, literally to inspire the worshippers, to get them to speak in tongues and reach heights of ecstasy. Gerald Coates and the Cobham Fellowship, which evolved into the Pioneer People and the Pioneer churches, had its origins around here, and Pioneer still attracts many people to worship in this charismatic way.

But still, we in the Church of England are cool customers. Just as Martin Luther wasn’t keen on what he called ‘madness’ or ‘Schwärmerei’ in other parts of the Reformed church, so in the 18th century in England, during the evangelical revival, at the time of the start of Methodism – which was, after all, originally an Anglican movement – Sermon 32 of the 44 collected sermons of John Wesley, (which all Methodist preachers have to familiarise themselves with during their training) is called ‘The Nature of Enthusiasm’, and is a sermon on that line in the Acts of the Apostles, 26:24, when Festus, the Roman governor, was questioning Paul, after Paul had explained the Gospel to him and explained how he had been converted to Christianity, Festus ‘said with a loud voice, Paul, thou art beside thyself’; that is, you are mad.

John Wesley says, “… if you aim at the religion of the heart, if you talk of ‘righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost’, then it will not be long before your sentence is passed, ‘Thou art beside thyself.’” People will think that you are mad. [Revd John Wesley, A.M., 1944, ‘Sermons on Several Occasions’, Peterborough, The Epworth Press: Sermon 32, Paragraph 1]

The term ‘enthusiasm’, in this context, is supposed to come from Greek origins, but John Wesley pours cold water on this supposed etymology. He sums up by saying, ‘Perhaps it is a fictitious word, invented from the noise which some of those made who were so affected.’[Paragraph 6].

If he was being too sniffy about this, and ‘enthusiasm’ was in fact derived from the Greek εν θεω, ‘in God’, and so, metonymically, ‘in Christ’, the word was perhaps coined to distinguish a sort of religious ‘madness’, as opposed to being completely bonkers. People could be perfectly normal and rational in the rest of their lives, but behave irrationally when it came to religion: in this they were being ‘enthusiasts’.

This was, of course, the time of Reason, the time of the Enlightenment, the time of John Locke and David Hume, of Descartes; a time of great challenge to Christianity as well as a time of evangelical revival. Today, as we look back on the Novena of prayer, nine days of prayer between the Ascension and Pentecost, today, if you have been following in the online app [https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/thy-kingdom-come/id1377639052?mt=8, or website https://www.thykingdomcome.global] which the Church of England has provided, you will have been enjoying some lovely short videos of various church leaders talking about the implications of the prayer ‘Thy Kingdom Come’.

One of these videos is one of our two Archbishops, who between them dreamed up the idea of praying ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ in order to fill up the emptiness after the Ascension with a ‘wave of prayer’. That great wave is breaking now, on Whit Sunday.

There’s a video by John Sentamu, our Archbishop of York. [See https://www.thykingdomcome.global/resources/day-6-prayfor-archbishop-sentamu-prayed-five-people-last-year-and-was-astounded-result]

He recommends that you should write down the names of five friends, five friends who are not churchgoers, and whom you pray for, ‘Thy Kingdom come’, so that they come to ‘know Christ’, as Archbishop John says. I suspect that Archbishop John is a little bit ‘enthusiastic’, in John Wesley’s terms. I would say, as a cool Northern European, that I can’t ‘know’ Christ in the same way that I know any one of you. But I can know about Christ, and I can be open to perceive the operation of the Holy Spirit in my fellow-Christians and in our church.

Indeed, we often do say that we can see the Holy Spirit at work in our church. Why did Revd John Waterson stick out for the really beautiful and grand Frobenius organ, when the Diocesan Advisory Committee sanctioned only something far more modest? It was to the greater glory of God, and this wonderful organ has enabled us to make more music, more beautiful music, ever since. Again, it was the Holy Spirit at work in this and the other churches in this area in the Churches Together in Cobham and Oxshott meeting, which led to the creation of the Foodbank. Who knew? Who knew that, under our noses, there are dozens of people who have to face the choice between paying the rent and buying some food. Right here in Stoke, in Cobham and Oxshott, in the Horsleys, Effingham and Downside. In all these prosperous areas – who knew? The Holy Spirit knew, and inspired us to do something about it. Where will the Spirit lead us next? We must watch and pray. We must pray, ‘Thy Kingdom Come.’

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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 the Second Sunday of Lent, 17th March 2019

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Philippians 3:17-4:1, Luke 13:31-35

As we woke up on Friday, to hear the news about the terrible shootings in the mosques in Christchurch in New Zealand, the New Zealand Prime Minister, Mrs Ardern, made a moving statement about the fact that it seems clear that the 50 people killed were the victims of a racist, Islamophobic terrorist. Mrs Ardern said, ‘Many of those who will have been directly affected by this shooting will be migrants, they will be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home and it is their home. They are us.’

A bit later on, a picture appeared on Twitter [reproduced above] of a man who, if I can say this, did not look like a Moslem, but rather like Andy Capp in the cartoons, in a flat cap, standing smiling outside a mosque in Manchester with a placard which said, ‘You are my friends. I will keep watch while you pray.’

Terrible atrocities do sometimes seem to bring out beautiful and uplifting thoughts, like those of Mrs Ardern and of the man in the flat cap outside the mosque in Manchester.

In our Lent study groups we are going through the Beatitudes, the ‘blessed are they’ sayings which Jesus spoke at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5.

The second one, perhaps the right one at a time of tragedy, is ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’ This is one of those short sentences that contains impossibly dense and complicated ideas. On the face of things, for somebody to be mourning, to be sad, to be heartbroken, is not in any sense the same as to be fortunate, which is what the word translated as ‘blessed’ means.

How lucky for you that you are heartbroken; what a wonderful thing it is that you are in floods of tears. Clearly there’s something which doesn’t add up. Try telling the distraught people that were on the TV from New Zealand that they were in some way blessed or fortunate. But really it means, as it says, that those who mourn will be blessed, will be comforted in future: and that is a message of hope after all.

St Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, condemns those who live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Earlier in the chapter we had as our reading, he identifies the people that he condemns. He says, ‘Beware of those dogs and their malpractices. Beware of those who insist on mutilation – I will not call it ‘circumcision’’. Beware of people who tell you you have to become a Jew in order to become a true Christian.

Nevertheless, Paul was proud to tell everybody that he had been circumcised and that he was an Israelite of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born and bred, and a Pharisee [Phil. 3:5]. He’d thrown it all over, after his Road-to-Damascus experience, and in his letters, for example to the Galatians and to the Romans, he made the point that, in the kingdom of heaven, there is no difference between Greeks, (Gentiles), and Jews.

The Israelites had been the chosen people of God, and the others, the Gentiles, the ‘nations’, were the great unwashed. But St Paul’s mission was to bring the good news of Jesus precisely to those Gentiles, to those who were not circumcised. He said, ‘Our citizenship is in heaven.’ Ordinary nationality doesn’t apply in heaven.

But originally, Paul – and Jesus – were Jews, sons of Abraham, descendants of Abraham. The word of the Lord came to Abraham and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars; because that’s how many your descendants will be.’ The sons of Abraham. They were Israelites, the chosen people of God.

The gunman is supposed to have said that one of his reasons for shooting Moslems was because he saw them as strangers, ‘invaders’. At the beginning of this week in morning prayers we were reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, where Moses speaks the words of the Lord, a prophecy about offering sacrifice of the first fruits of the land, the land of milk and honey, which the Israelites have been led into, the promised land. Moses tells them to say in their prayers that they are descended from ‘a wandering Aramean’, or from ‘a Syrian ready to perish’, that they have been led into Egypt and then eventually out of Egypt again, as strangers in the land. Even they, the chosen people, started out as strangers.

There are many passages in the Book of Deuteronomy, and in the Jewish Law generally, which St Paul would have been very familiar with, which impose on Jews a duty to care for a stranger that is within their gates, to care for strangers along with orphans and widows. That is the spirit that Mrs Ardern has so eloquently reminded us of. It is not a spirit of antipathy towards immigrants and refugees, not against strangers, not against people who are different from ourselves.

This is such a difficult area. There are so many apparent paradoxes. The Jews, refugees, made it to the promised land; they went to the holy city, Jerusalem, and set up the temple there. ‘Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest’.

But Jesus points out that, because that is where the council, the Sanhedrin, is based, it is only in Jerusalem that he can be condemned, and that Jerusalem is a city that kills prophets, that throws stones at people who are sent to it.

Mrs Ardern was one of those world leaders, like Mrs Merkel in Germany, who has dared to extend a welcome to refugees. She still extends that welcome. But what about us? The challenge to us today is surely not to be fixated with ‘taking back control’, with restricting immigration and upholding national identity, however important some of those things might seem to be at first.

Jesus said, ‘Strive to enter in at the strait gate. Struggle to get in through the narrow door. For I tell you that many will try to enter and not be able to. You may stand outside and knock: say, ‘Sir, let us in.’ But he will only answer, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ [Luke 13:24]

Where do we come from? You could say that Jesus makes getting into the kingdom of heaven seem like a refugee trying to come ashore in Italy, or trying to get through at the Hungarian border or even being caught up in our own Government’s ‘hostile environment’ at Heathrow today. Contrast that with what Mrs Ardern said. ‘ … They will be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home. It is their home. They are us.’

The challenge for us as Christians is to raise our sights above the earthly ghastliness which stems from narrow nationalism, and to seek what is truly heavenly. ‘Blessed are those who mourn, because they will be comforted.’ Let us pray that, with God’s help, we can become channels of peace, so that we too can say that they are our friends, and that we will keep watch while they pray.

Sermon for Evensong for the Meeting of the Guildford Branch of the Prayer Book Society in the Founder’s Chapel, Charterhouse, on 9th March 2019

Psalms 47,48 and 49; Genesis 41:1-24; Galatians 3:15-22

At the moment I’ve got a young Turkish couple staying with me, who are really delightful people, whose only fault, so far as I’m concerned, is that the wife is for ever trying to feed me with Turkish delicacies.

On Wednesday I bumped into them when I got home at the end of the day, and after a certain amount of whispering, the husband asked, excusing himself if it was rude, but, did I know that I had a big dirty mark on my forehead? I had to explain to him – because he is a Moslem – that it was the ash from Ash Wednesday.

So it’s that time again – it seems to come round quicker and quicker as the years go by – when we are supposed to reflect, take stock, follow Jesus on his 40 days in the wilderness, and amend our lives: change our minds, repent, in the face of the momentous events of Holy Week and Easter.

Here in the Prayer Book Society we all come from different parishes, and in each parish I’m sure there are study groups and Lent activities for everyone to take part in. At St Mary’s in Stoke D’Abernon we are following Bishop Steven Croft’s Pilgrim course, in which we study the Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,’ and so on.

We could, I’m sure, take a straw poll of the courses that each of us is following, or the Lent activities or Lent sacrifices which we are all making, in order to make this ‘40 days’ special and to bring home to us the seriousness of it.

I wonder if there is a distinctive Prayer Book approach to Lent: do we get any ideas from the Bible readings prescribed for today? I must confess that when I first read our first lesson, about Pharaoh’s dream, the seven good kine, cows, and the seven ‘ill favoured and leanfleshed’ ones, and the seven good ears of corn and seven shrivelled-up ones, I wondered whether the compilers of the Lectionary were being cruel to us and inflicting yet more worries about Brexit on us.

I’m sure that I’m not the only one who occasionally wakes up in the middle of the night, frankly very worried about what seems to be happening to our country, and not knowing where it is all going to end. Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone who could forecast the future, or at least interpret one’s dreams, as Joseph did for Pharaoh?

But Joseph pointed out that he wasn’t being a fortune-teller in his own right, but that he was doing something prophetic, that the words were being given to him by God. He was God’s mouthpiece. Seven bad years, seven good years; famine is coming along, is what God said to Pharaoh through Joseph. And Pharaoh, with Joseph’s help, was able to organise his country to deal with the famine which was coming. God was speaking to his people through Joseph.

And then again, there is the passage from Galatians, which may be quite difficult to follow. I’m not quite sure how many of us here are lawyers, but I think it probably helps if you are or were one, as indeed I was.

So here goes. ‘Though it be but a man’s covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto.’ Once a contract has been signed – a ‘covenant’ is a contract – once it has been agreed, it can’t be unilaterally cancelled or added to. I definitely won’t go anywhere near the discussions in Brussels about the so-called ‘back stop’ here: but you can see the point. Having made an agreement, it is what it is. Unless both sides agree, one side can’t just unilaterally cancel it or change it, add bits to it.

‘Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made.’ What St Paul is saying is that God made contractual promises to Abraham. They made an agreement. If you worship me and keep my commandments, then I will keep you safe and you will be the founder of my chosen people. This was a promise to Abraham ‘and his seed’, as our Bible puts it: to Abraham and his descendants. Actually, not to his descendants, plural. St Paul’s point is that the word ‘seed’ is singular, so it means, ‘to Abraham and his descendant, singular’. So the beneficiary of the contract is Abraham’s descendant, singular. And that descendant is ‘thy seed, which is Christ’. This is all about a special kind of covenant, a will. God has bequeathed the benefit of his promise to Abraham’s descendant. He is ‘heir to the promise’.

St Paul goes on. ’And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul’ You have to read this upside-down. The law, which came 430 years later, can’t override the covenant. St Paul is drawing a distinction between God’s original promise to Abraham, and the law which he gave to Moses in the tablets of stone, the Ten Commandments.

St Paul is pointing out that the Jewish Law, the first five books of the Old Testament, based on the Ten Commandments, is a comprehensive system to keep people on the straight and narrow. ‘It was added because of transgressions’, because people were doing wrong, and it was put there to take care of the situation ‘till the seed should come to whom the promise was made…’ and that is the seed, ‘which is Christ.’

The Jewish Law and the basic promise to Abraham are not in conflict with each other. ‘Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid …’ But you have to understand what is of fundamental importance and what is, in effect, a temporary expedient, to make for a good society till the kingdom of God comes. Remember that Jesus himself said, ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law … but to fulfil’ (Matt. 5:17) – but St Paul wouldn’t have been able to read St Matthew’s Gospel, so he might not have known exactly what Jesus had said.

This is all squarely in the ambit of Paul’s main mission, his main task, to bring the Gospel, the good news of Christ, to the Gentiles, to the non-Jews, and like all the letters, it’s like one half of a telephone conversation: you have to imagine what the other party in the conversation was saying.

Paul ticks off the Galatians – ‘O foolish Galatians’, at the beginning of chapter 3; and it becomes apparent, when you read the letter, that what he was berating the Galatians for was the fact that, whereas originally they had simply accepted the Gospel and started to follow and worship Christ, over time they had begun to believe that they couldn’t just become Christians, but they had to become Jews first.

Only the Jews could obtain salvation, and therefore, in order to be a good Christian, you also had to be a good Jew. You had to carry out all the Jewish Law and also, if you were a man, you had to be circumcised. But St Paul pointed out that this was not necessary, not right: that we are saved by faith, not by works, not by simply carrying out the dictates of the Jewish Law. Paul wrote, ‘if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law.’

And then you will see, if you read on – your afternoon homework, after the match tea, might be to read the rest of the Letter to the Galatians – you’ll see how it works. And you’ll see that although you may be tempted to do bad things, what will straighten you out is not following the dictates of the Jewish Law but having the power of the Holy Spirit in you, which will bring the ‘fruits of the Spirit’. So instead of ‘fornication, impurity, and indecency; idolatry and sorcery; quarrels, a contentious temper, envy, fits of rage, selfish ambitions, dissensions, party intrigues, and jealousies; drinking bouts, orgies, and the like , instead of those, the fruit, the harvest, of the Spirit, as he puts it, is ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, and self-control: but he says there is no law dealing with things like this. ‘[T]hose who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the lower nature with its passions and desires. If the Spirit is the source of our life, let the Spirit also direct our course’. It’s tempting to think that it may be that the idea of being ruled solely by gifts of the Spirit could extend to ways of worship. You know, you don’t need any rules.

It seems to me at least arguable that, if you don’t have to be circumcised, in the context that St Paul found himself in, today we must recognise that people can come to Christian faith and gain salvation through the grace of God in all sorts of different ways.

Worshipping with the help of the Prayer Book is certainly fine, and is a good example of true worship, ‘worth-ship’, bringing our best to God. But equally, we mustn’t turn it into an object of worship in itself. That would surely be idolatry.

Maybe after all, what speaks to us as Prayer Book Society members today particularly is in our psalms. Take Psalm 47:

Clap your hands together, all ye people:

O sing unto God with the voice of melody

This psalm contains the deathless line, which Miles Coverdale wrote and which has even survived almost intact into Common Worship:

God is gone up with a merry noise:

I have to say that I’ve always had, in the back of my mind, a picture of somebody letting off a balloon. I think that is how I picture going up with a merry noise. But why not? If you read all the psalms today, you will be in part uplifted, in part enlightened, and in part, chastened. Remember Psalm 49:

There be some that put their trust in their goods 

and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches.

…[T]hey think that their houses shall continue for ever 

 and that their dwelling-places shall endure from one generation to another; and call the lands after their own names.…..This is their foolishness ……They lie in the hell like sheep, death gnaweth upon them, and the righteous shall have domination over them in the morning.

These psalms, 47,48 and 49, are psalms which it would be very good to meditate on as part of your Lent observance.

But it doesn’t seem to me that there’s any reason for Lent to be relentlessly gloomy. Just thoughtful.

O sing praises, sing praises unto our God:

O sing praises, sing praises unto our King.

Sermon for the Third Sunday before Lent, 17th February 2019

Jeremiah 17:5-10; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=417352294

I have to tell you that, when I read the Bible lessons for today, my sermon pretty much wrote itself. That’s because today we are given a sort of potted guide to several key points in our Christian religion. It’s a different angle on some of the most important things we say in the Creed. See if you agree.

Yesterday we had our Marriage Enrichment day, for everyone who is going to get married at St Mary’s this year – I don’t know whether it was Godfrey’s cunning plan, to schedule it nearly on St Valentine’s Day, or whether it just came out that way. Be that as it may, I had a sneak preview when I was helping to set up the lantern slides for it.

I was impressed by one slide which listed ‘Six Topics’ – actually with an exclamation mark, ‘Six Topics!’ in a marriage. They were Money, Time, Sex, Children, Communication and Difficult times/Conflict (which is really two topics, but never mind). But the interesting bit was that on the side of the picture, alongside the list of the six (or seven) topics, was, in big handwritten style, ‘+Faith’, you know, the word ‘Faith’ in big swirly letters, with a plus sign in front of it. Add faith.

That’s the point of lesson number one today, our Old Testament lesson. Add faith. ‘Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals … whose hearts turn away from the Lord.’ But ‘Blessed are those who trust in the Lord. … They shall be like a tree planted by water … in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.’ If people didn’t get so bogged down in everyday life, if they didn’t forget to think of God, perhaps to say their prayers a bit, and to read their Bible, things would go better. God will be with them in the difficult times.

But what is the faith which you need to add, for a successful marriage – or, following the prophet Jeremiah, for a fruitful life?

You could just say to our wedding couples – and have we got anyone here this morning who went to the course yesterday? Or was it enough to be going on with? Anyway, you could just say to them, ‘Pay attention to the words of the Creed. I believe …’ – I believe: in what? What do Christians believe in?

Incidentally, I think it’s important not to get too stuck on saying ‘I’. ‘I believe’. It may be more honest to say, ‘We believe. We.’ There may be some less important things that we struggle with, but we can say the Creed all together, if we say ‘we’, and if we mean, ‘This is what Christians as a body subscribe to – and I’m in that group.’ It need not mean that, in order to belong to the church, you have to believe in every detail. You can just be happy to belong.

So back to the question, what do we believe, as Christians? What is our faith? Our other two lessons, from St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, and from St Luke chapter 6, will give us some more important pointers.

You’ll note that, although we’ve just done our marriage enrichment course, the lesson from 1 Corinthians isn’t the normal wedding one, ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal’. Oh, all right, ‘… if I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love’. It’s ‘love’ in a wedding, not charity. But we’re not doing that bit. We’re looking at the fifteenth chapter, about the resurrection of the dead. That, that’s a key point in Christian faith. Faith in the resurrection, in life after death. Starting with Jesus himself, and then growing into what in the funeral service we call the ‘sure and certain hope’ of eternal life. We often have 1 Corinthians 15 at funerals. We have it because St Paul really goes into this key bit of faith, faith in eternal life, in a resurrection of the dead.

St Paul’s letter reads a bit like the transcript of one side of a telephone conversation. We can’t hear exactly what the Corinthians were saying: but it’s pretty clear that some of them were poo-pooing the possibility of life after death. St Paul points out the logical implications of that. If there is no chance of resurrection, then the whole basis of our faith, our belief that Jesus was raised from the dead, would be contradicted. So one of the key points in Christian faith is a belief in life after death – and in particular a belief that Jesus was the first one to be resurrected.

It’s such an extraordinary thing, so contrary to all the laws of nature, that it is difficult to believe. So St Paul goes on, after the passage which we have read today, to tackle the question not just that the dead are raised, but how they are raised. It can be your homework today. Read the rest of chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians. Even if you are a Darwinist, there’s nothing in it to upset your scientific understanding. I won’t spoil it.

So in our first two lessons we see two pillars of our Christian faith, that you need faith, if your life is going to be fruitful – that you shouldn’t try to ignore the Divine – and that our Christian faith is centred on Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. It is a sign, a vital sign. We believe that the empty tomb was real. And then, we believe in what Jesus’ death and resurrection meant, in who Jesus really was, and in what he did. That Jesus is God, God with us. But note that as St Paul says, if that really is too much to stomach, then you need to know what it is you are dismissing. You can’t have Jesus without His resurrection. Without it, he’s not God.

And then in St Luke’s Gospel we go on to hear what the effect of Jesus, the effect of His coming, is, and what it still can be. Our lesson is St Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ great statement of what you must do, if you really follow His teaching. First of all he states how contrarian, how back-to-front, Christianity is. Basically in those days, just as it is today, people tended to equate material success and prosperity with virtue. You couldn’t live in such a lovely house; you couldn’t really have such a nice car, unless you were basically doing the right thing, unless you were a good person. Scruffy people must really be pretty useless, you’re tempted to think. No wonder they’re living in damp rented flats if they only bothered to get one GCSE – in some non-subject or other. Feckless.

But Jesus says that if you’re poor, or hungry, or sad, it’s not a question of blame. There’s no such thing as the deserving – or undeserving – poor. They are ‘Μακαριος’ in the Greek, blessed. That’s what the poor are, what the hungry are. Jesus turns things upside-down. This passage of ‘beatitudes’, blessings, ‘Blessed are the .. [whoever it is]’, runs into the really revolutionary bit, ‘Love your enemies, turn the other cheek, lend without expecting to be repaid.’ Don’t rush to judge someone – it could be you next. All those great, generous ideas – but the problem is that no-one really follows them. Because people say that just as resurrection can’t be real, in real life turning the other cheek is a lovely idea in theory, but it can’t be practical.

But what Jesus is advocating is a bit like what St Paul was saying about resurrection, about life after death. If you’ve got no faith in it, you’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. If you make faithful-sounding noises, if you tell everyone you’ve been saved, but you still think that rich people must somehow be better people, and poor people must really be a bit useless, a bit feckless – if being saved doesn’t make any difference to what you do, to how you treat people, then Jesus is there to tell you you’re just not getting it yet.

This is a neat way for me to round off what I’m saying. Godfrey and I are going to be running a Lent Bible study course, and the theme is going to be exactly what our Gospel today was about – the Beatitudes. I do hope you will come. We’ll have a session in the daytime and a session in the evening. I hope you will feel blessed at the end of it – and that you will see that being blessed isn’t the same as being comfortably off. You will need to add faith.

Sermon for Evensong on the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, 27th January 2019

Psalm 33; Numbers 9:17-24; 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 – Holocaust Memorial Day 2019

When I went to the Holy Land a few years ago, on the Clandon parish pilgrimage led by Revd Barry Preece, we had an optional visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum. It came as a complete change of mood from the rest of the trip. Every day we had visited sites from the Bible, in Bethlehem or in Galilee or in Jerusalem, following in the footsteps of Jesus, and every day we worshipped together in these fabled places, which before we had only imagined, perhaps helped by some pictures in books or in museums which we had been to, but now where we actually were in the places where Jesus had been.

Now we really were in the Garden of Gethsemane, or out in the Sea of Galilee, imagining St Peter and the disciples not catching any fish. Generally, it was a happy, upbeat time. We met for supper and told each other stories over nice suppers and drinkable wines. Some of the Lebanese wines were really memorable … We didn’t actually go to a party at Cana in Galilee, but we got the flavour of it.

At the same time, we could see that there was a difference between the Israeli and Palestinian districts. We could see the awfully ugly and massive wall, dividing the two. We came across the ‘settlements’, which we had read about, where Israeli ‘settlers’ had established themselves, in contravention of United Nations resolutions. But despite the rather temporary-sounding name, ‘settlements’, they weren’t some sort of temporary camp; think instead of something like Milton Keynes. Milton Keynes on the top of a hill, in one instance [Wadi Fuqeen], pouring its sewage down into the valley below, where the Palestinians, whose land had been taken, still eked out a meagre existence.

There was a ‘night tour’ by coach around Israeli Jerusalem. No more dusty Middle Eastern roads, teeming with scruffy lorries and minivans, that you get in the Palestinian part of Jerusalem. No, here it was broad highways, sprinklers, green grass verges. Almost nobody walking, but rather most people driving. A beautiful hotel, the ‘American Colony’ – that is really its name. We didn’t go in, but I could tell that it would be nice to stay there.

On the way down to Masada in the desert, to see Herod’s amazing mountain-top palace, we went through a check-point between Israel and Palestine. It took our 40-seater coach a couple of minutes to be waved through. The queue of weary-looking Palestinians waiting to cross the border – some of them to their own land, which had been arbitrarily divided by the Israeli wall – were, we were told, often delayed for more than an hour, for no reason.

And then some of us went to the Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem. I remember remarkably mundane exhibits; freight trains whose cargo was people; endless paperwork, detailing everything about that ‘cargo’; personal effects, the stuff ordinary people had with them. But truly I felt a kind of internal contradiction. The exhibits were fine, so far as they went. But the point was, that the banality of this industrialised slaughter was overwhelming. Very few of the things we saw in the museum were, in themselves, weapons or instruments of torture. But nevertheless, this was killing on an unforeseeable and awful scale. It was too much to take in properly, but it looked mundane and normal. Nothing could justify the awfulness of the Nazi persecution in the Second World War, nothing could justify that genocide.

I’ve just finished reading a really good and enlightening book by Philippe Sands, the well-known QC who specialises in the defence of human rights, called ‘East West Street’. That street is in the city called Lvov, or Lviv, or Lemburg – a city now in Ukraine, which has been in Austria and Poland also at various times, where two of the greatest academic lawyers of the modern era were born: Sir Hersch Lauterpacht, who invented the legal concept of crimes against humanity, and Professor Raphael Lemkin, who invented the word – and the concept – of ‘genocide’. Both were Jewish. Both lost many of their families in the Holocaust. Philippe Sands’ grandfather also came from there.

‘Genocide’ was defined by Prof. Lemkin as acts ‘directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of national groups’. [See http://www.preventgenocide.org/lemkin/AxisRule1944-1.htm] The Nazis killed people not because of who they were or what they had done, but because of what they were. To be a Jew was to attract a death sentence. The term ‘genocide’ was first used, at Prof. Lemkin’s suggestion, in the charges brought in the great Nuremberg trial of the Nazi leaders in 1944. Prof. Lemkin had coined the word from the Greek root γενος, a tribe, and the Latin cido, I kill.

When I went round the Yad Vashem museum, I felt strangely detached. On the one hand, I felt the mundane, industrial horror of the concentration camps. Holocaust Memorial Day is on January 27th because that is the day when Auschwitz was liberated. On the other hand, the fact that surely no-one, now, would seriously think of doing anything as awful as the Nazis did.

Except that they have done. There have been other instances of genocide since WW2. The massacres in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia, for instance. What causes it?

No clues in the lesson from the Book of Numbers. Rather recondite stuff about when the Israelites, in exile but having come out of captivity in Egypt, would move forward when the ‘tabernacle’, the tent covering the Ark of the Covenant, the very ornamental box containing the Ten Commandments on two stone tablets, was covered and uncovered by clouds. This is part of the Torah, the law, the story, of Moses, and of the people of Israel, God’s chosen people: fine; but why would anyone hate those people?

And in the other lesson from St Paul, the emphasis is on the inclusiveness of Christianity. Come as you are. You don’t have to attain any status first. You can be a slave and still be a good Christian. You can, certainly, be Jewish. Being a Christian doesn’t mean you can’t be Jewish too. We might wonder why St Paul didn’t object to the existence of slavery, but certainly there is no suggestion that some people are less deserving of salvation than others. Indeed St Paul uses the mechanisms of slavery to illustrate how Jesus can set people free, literally.

But despite these innocent Bible passages, we know that anti-Jewish feeling is a very old thing. The Jews, as a race, have been blamed for killing Jesus. They have been called ‘god-killers’. Martin Luther was very antisemitic, blaming the Jews for failing to recognise Jesus as the Messiah. He was out of line with most of the other Reformers in this. After all, the story of Paul’s conversion and acceptance by the early Christians, even though he had been persecuting them – and Jesus’ own words from the cross, ‘Forgive them, they know not what they do’, and so on, go against any blanket condemnation of the Jews.

It is still an issue. In this country the Labour Party has been condemned for being antisemitic, although I think that I would make a distinction between being opposed to some of the actions of the modern state of Israel, such as the expropriation of Palestinian land and building ‘settlements’ in contravention of United Nations resolutions, being opposed to that on the one hand, which seems to me to be legitimate, and being anti-Jewish in general. That distinction recalls Raphael Lemkin’s definition of genocide, in that people who are antisemitic are against people because of what they are, rather than because of what they do.

St Paul’s message of acceptance, of inclusion, is still very relevant. In some places when I was a boy, there were adverts which specified ‘no blacks and no Jews’ could apply. It surely couldn’t happen nowadays. But there has recently been the EMPIRE WINDRUSH scandal, where our own government, Mrs May herself, the Prime Minister in her previous post, forcibly sent elderly black people to places in the Caribbean which they had left when they were children, left at our invitation, in order to come and work here. That recent scandal again shows people judging others by what they are – in that case, black people who have come from other countries – rather than by who they are or what they do.

The banal routines, the orderliness, of the Holocaust are still a danger, I fear. Very few people would just go and shoot someone: but what if you are a soldier and you are ordered to do it? Of course that was at the heart of the Nuremberg trials. The railway employees who drove the trains, who manned the signal boxes, who repaired the main lines, wouldn’t normally be looked on as authors of genocide. But without their work, the poor Jews would not have been put in the concentration camps so efficiently and in such vast numbers. There were lots of innocent routines and ordinary jobs, which nevertheless made genocide possible.

The other great lawyer whom Philippe Sands celebrates in his book is Sir Hersch Lauterpacht, whose son was Sands’ tutor at university. Lauterpacht developed the other great concept which was first used in the Nuremberg trials, the concept of crimes against humanity. The United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights grew out of Lauterpacht’s work, and was, by contrast with Lemkin’s work, concerned not with crimes against whole peoples, but with crimes against individuals. What was the true nature of the evil contained in the Holocaust? When the victorious allies were preparing to try the Nazi leaders, what was the essence of their crimes? It was an assault on people as individuals, on who they were, as much as on what they were.

These are still vital ideas. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, his great command to us to love our neighbours as ourselves, and St Paul’s message all through his letters that it doesn’t matter what our origins are if we are to become Christians – these are so relevant today. When we hear people saying things against people because of what they are – foreigners, migrants, black people, say – and when we hear people saying that it’s just too bad (but there’s nothing which can be done about it) that many people don’t have enough to eat, or can’t afford medicines – those are the sorts of ideas which in the past have resulted in genocide.

Archbishop John Sentamu is starting to raise money for a bishop, Bishop Hannington Mutebi in Kampala, Uganda, who needs cancer treatment – which costs £155,000. What do we feel about that? We hope he gets the money, and the treatment. What if you weren’t a bishop but still had cancer in Uganda? You are still entitled to be treated, because you are human. You have human rights. Perhaps it has taken the history of the Holocaust to bring it home to us how vital those rights are.

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.