Archives for posts with tag: witness

Sermon for Mattins and Evensong on the Sunday after Ascension, 17th May 2015
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; John 17:6-19 (Mattins): Isaiah 61; Luke 4:14-21 (Evensong)

What happens after the main man has gone? You know, at that special conference; the Royal visit; when the prizes have been given out and the speeches made; when the curtain has come down after the climactic finale.

Wasn’t it good? Didn’t he speak well? We all felt so inspired, uplifted, even. With this man Jesus, so many wonderful things happened while he was around. Miracles, maybe. Water into wine at a wedding, somebody said. Getting people who had been wheelchair-bound for years to jump up like spring rams. His medical ability even extended to bringing people who had died, back to life. Think of poor old Lazarus. What a wonderful time! What a wonderful man!

You can imagine how the disciples felt. It wasn’t just the Twelve by this time. There were 120 of them in the upper room – it must have been a big place. But even if it was full of the bustle which goes with a crowded room, they felt flat, empty, bereft.

Jesus had disappeared, he had been taken up into the clouds. According to Luke’s account in Acts, two men in white garments had appeared, as the disciples looked up where He seemed to have gone, and mysteriously said that He would come back the same way he had gone. (Acts 1:10-11)

That’s not very helpful. The disciples didn’t know where Jesus had gone, although from some of the things He had said to them, they could infer that He was somehow going back to His Heavenly Father, to the God who had sent him. He had said, for instance, ‘All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.’ (John 17:10-11)

It’s not surprising that mankind has always been very concerned to know about life after death. There are all the myths of Hades, and people coming back from there – think of Orpheus and Eurydice – and about ghosts. For instance, this week I was fortunate enough to see John Neumeier’s famous production of the ballet ‘Giselle’ at the Staatsoper in Hamburg.

Young Duke Albert dresses up as a peasant, (as you do), and falls for a beautiful peasant girl, Giselle. Giselle is, however, rather delicate. Her Mum, who is blind (and therefore more perceptive, like the blind seer Tiresias in Greek tragedy), predicts that it will all end badly. Giselle already had another admirer, a peasant called Hilarion, before Albert burst into her life, and he just happens to find Albert’s sword, unmasks him, and poor Giselle dies of a broken heart.

In Act 2, the setting is Giselle’s grave. Ghosts, ghosts of girls whose fiancés had deserted them before they married, called the Wilis, appear, along with poor Albert and Hilarion, who are bereft at losing Giselle. The Wilis try to trap all men in a dance of death. They get the poor peasant boyfriend, but not Albert. And then the ghost of Giselle appears too. Happily, she seems to forgive Albert for cheating her, and they dance tenderly together. But the dawn breaks, and he is left alone. So sad.

We find it so difficult when we lose someone, when someone dies. Where did they go to? The Greeks believed in a very well-detailed vision of the world after death: of the underworld, and Hades, and of the gods in heaven, on Mount Olympus.

But in contrast with all that detail about ‘heaven’ in literature and mythology, in the case of Jesus there is no detail; apart from references to Jesus ‘sitting at the right hand of God on high’; it’s rather vague. There is some terrific visionary stuff in the Book of Revelation (chapter 21), but no simple factual guide.

But the disciples, whose sense of loss must have been really acute, didn’t get tied down in this eschatology, trying to capture the truth about life after death. They had work to do in the here-and-now. Jesus had given them the vital task of passing on the good news, the revelation of God among mankind. ‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who bringeth good tidings’, as the Ascension Day lesson from Isaiah 57 says.

Father Matthew of the Anglican Church of St Thomas Becket in Hamburg, where I was on Thursday, made the congregation smile by saying that we all had beautiful feet. I hear that Godfrey also preached on Ascension Day about feet – whether they were beautiful or not I haven’t heard. According to Fr Matthew, we weren’t meant to stand around gawping, like the disciples looking up to heaven, but to get on with letting the world know the good news of Jesus. And to the extent that we did pass on the good word, our feet would be beautiful.

Father Matthew in Hamburg, and Godfrey here, weren’t offering some chiropodist’s secret treatment for bunions. The message, the message at this time in the Christian year, is that, whatever the Ascension stands for – the coming of the Kingdom of God, the ‘year of the Lord’s favour’, as Isaiah 61 puts it, which Jesus told them was a reference to Him (Luke 4:21) – whatever that really means (as it is surely a mystery), there is work to do. Next week, on Whit Sunday, we will celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, the ‘Holy Ghost, the comforter’. But in the meantime, in the few days after Jesus’ ascension before the Spirit came to the disciples, they still had to organise themselves.

So at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, they had to choose someone to replace Judas Iscariot. To replace Judas – as what? As a disciple, an apostle? A disciple, μαθητής, was a student, literally – it’s the same meaning that ‘Taliban’ has, I understand; a student of Jesus the Teacher, the rabbi. Or an ‘apostle’, a man ‘sent out’, which is what αποστολος in Greek means. It was neither of these. Matthias, the new man, was to be a witness, a witness to the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Greek word is μαρτυρος, ‘martyr’. It has come to mean so much more than just a witness. A Christian witness is someone who is prepared to sacrifice everything in order to witness to the Good News.

It’s interesting to see how they chose Matthias. First they prayed for God’s guidance, and then they ‘cast lots’. I’m not sure whether this was voting, as such, or something like drawing the short straw. Either way it reminds us, as I hope we were reminded at the General Election, that important choices go better if we say our prayers first.

Then, having got the team up to full strength again, they were ready. We should be the same. As Christians, there are times when we may feel a bit lost, perhaps drifting a bit in our faith. Jesus isn’t really ‘there’ for us. All we can see is busyness in our lives, ‘stuff’. The main man has gone. We need the charge of the Holy Spirit in our souls.

We should learn from what the early church did. They got on with practical things, making sure that their leadership team was up to strength. It must have been an incredibly tough time for them. Where had Jesus gone? What did it mean that He would come back the same way that He had gone? No-one knew. And yet: and yet the essentials of the Gospel story were in place. Jesus had come among them, teaching and healing the sick. He had died. He had risen again from the dead – not a ghost, but in person, flesh and blood.

It meant that God is involved with mankind, that He cares for us. Nothing, in the whole of human knowledge and experience, can be more important than that. And it isn’t just a stupendous event, something to leave you gawping in amazement, but it is also a life-changer. A lot of our concerns, a lot of the things we think of as being vital for our way of life, can never be the same in the light of this.

We may feel a bit bereft, like the disciples after Jesus had gone, after the Ascension; but we know more than they did. The Holy Spirit will come – it has come. In reality it is here, ‘open and around us’. It may help us to remember this, by our celebrating Whit Sunday and the run up to it – but the Holy Spirit is always there. He is the Advocate, the Comforter. Let us be comforted, and get on with it.

What is ‘it’, that we’re supposed to get on with?

He hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord; (Isaiah 61:1)

How many of those things could we – could you – do? To ‘bind up the broken-hearted’ we can certainly do, by supporting, by being there for, people caught up in sadness of one kind or another. Tick that one.

But ‘To proclaim liberty to the captives’ and so on? Tricky one. Are we being asked to release all the people in prisons? Perhaps it implies that we should support Amnesty International, which works to free all those who have been wrongly imprisoned, in Guantanamo, for example.

But again, perhaps if we ask the Lord in prayer to guide us, He might confront us with what is happening in our prisons here in England. More and more people are being incarcerated, but government cuts have meant that there are fewer prison officers. People are being locked up in their cells for longer and longer at a time, and there are fewer opportunities to attend courses and learn skills which offer the prisoners a chance of rehabilitation in society at the end of their sentences. There is surely work for us Christians to do here as well.

So as we look forward to next Sunday, we pray, ‘Come Holy Spirit, our souls inspire’: but we have important things to do meanwhile, even now, so that we really can ‘proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord’. With God’s help, it’s up to us.

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Sermon for Evensong on the 2nd Sunday of Lent, 16th March 2014
Luke 14: ‘For which of you … counteth the cost?’

I’ve never really got this passage. On the one hand, Jesus tells his disciples that they must turn their backs on family and friends, must give up everything, if they are to become his disciples, his students.

On the other, He asks some rhetorical questions about making prudent choices, making sure you have sufficient building materials before starting to build; weighing up the relative numbers of opposing armies before launching an attack.

On the first hand, Jesus seems to be calling for reckless abandon on the part of his followers. Cast off the trappings of life. Have faith.

On the other, He says, everyone figures out the odds before committing themselves. Is it really worth doing, to become a disciple of Jesus? What are the pros and cons?

These two points of view can’t both be true. Conventionally, scholars reconcile the apparent contradiction – reckless abandon versus figuring the odds before acting – by saying that this is about the seriousness of the commitment needed in order to become Jesus’ disciple. I’m not sure that’s right.

Lent is supposed to be a time of reflection and self-examination, reflecting the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, during which time He was tempted by the Devil. Traditionally we have made this into a time of abstinence and fasting, a time of self-denial. So people typically give up alcohol and chocolate as a sign that they are marking Lent, that they are part of the group that is marking Lent, that is, the Christian church. Let’s say that their reflection and self-examination correspond with being Jesus’ sensible builders, figuring out the odds.

But let’s face it, the abstinence, the keeping off chocolate – unless you are Revd Keith Hebden, the vicar in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, who is going to take no food for 40 days and nights in order to support End Hunger Now – whatever you do, will be relatively trivial.

Not but what I hope that you will, for example, support the Bishop’s Lent Call, for which there is a flyer at the back of the church on your way out, which puts a price on various things that you might do in the normal course of your life, so that, rather like a swear box, you will pay a little penalty for doing a particular thing, like taking more than 2½ minutes to have your shower in the morning, or having an alcoholic drink: I’m not knocking any of this.

I think that anything, which makes you reflect, is a good thing. But I have experienced something in the last few days which has made me realise what it is to search my inner being in a way which I have never had to before. I have been attending court for the last week, to support a friend of mine who is on trial.

I got to the end of the third day of the trial, and as I drove home, my mind started to fill with all sorts of testing thoughts. I thought about the testing time which Jesus himself suffered: and I slowly began to realise what a real, serious, testing period could involve.

Obviously I can’t tell you in any great detail about the court case, which, incidentally, is still going on. It is a re-trial. The whole trial has taken place before, but the jury was unable to agree. So the prosecutors decided that they would do it all over again. Three months later, a new jury was empanelled, the new hearing began, and the evidence was starting to be set out all over again.

But after three days, three days of the retrial, one of the jurors called in sick. The rules are that they are supposed to get a doctor’s note to justify their absence, or else such absence becomes a criminal offence in itself. Well, by the next day the juror hadn’t turned up, and the police had been round to his house to find him, but he had disappeared. No doctor’s certificate had arrived.

Both sides don’t want less than a full jury, so it looks as though there is going to be a third trial. What I was reflecting on, as I drove back from the court, was how all the various people involved in the case must have been feeling. My friend, who is on trial, is under terrible stress. He maintains that he did not do what he’s accused of. There is a witness who is effectively accusing him of something which, if it is proved to have happened, would amount to a very serious crime, for which he could be sent to jail for several years. There is apparently evidence on both sides.

Now I don’t know about you, but I quite enjoy policier stuff on the TV. The whole emphasis is on the thrill of the chase. Whether we’re watching Wallander or Dixon of Dock Green, the idea is that the policeman is out to catch criminals and have them locked away when they have been convicted in court. You can thoroughly enter into this and enjoy it. My favourite detective at the moment is Montalbano. Montalbano is a detective in Sicily. He has the most beautiful flat, which is on the beach. In the opening sequences we see him enjoying a swim before he goes to work. Various things happen, sometimes involving the Mafia, and sometimes even involving murders. Montalbano’s method of working always involves lunch, in a congenial trattoria where he’s extremely well-known, and where he lunches people who might be helpful in the context of his current case. Strangely enough, such people are always very good-looking girls.

It’s great viewing on a Sunday evening after Evensong. But having been in the court this week, it certainly occurs to me that real crimes, and real criminal law, aren’t like that. It’s not fun. The court has to establish the facts, then to establish if those facts mean that any law has been broken, and then to establish whether the person in the dock did the things which amounted to the breach of the law: and if so, the right penalty, as prescribed by law, has to be handed down.

So far, so uncontroversial. And frankly, so unconnected with our comfortable lives here. Some of us may have done some prison visiting, and some of us may have gone to one of those Grange Park Opera productions performed in prisons around the country. But what would you feel like, if you were watching your barrister and the prosecuting barrister fighting it out in front of the jury? And knowing that, if it goes the wrong way, you will end up for several years in jail?

What does it feel like for my friend? He’s a professional person. He went to a good university. He had a professional job. Something has gone terribly wrong. He is ruined. He is already ruined, even before the verdict, just by being in court on trial. His wife has left him. But he didn’t do it.

But will the jury believe him? Will the jury weigh up the evidence, with the help of the barristers on each side and with the help of the judge, who will give directions? What happens if he’s acquitted? There are still those people who accused him. They’re still going to be out there.

What if he goes to jail? Where will he end up? Will any of his friends be able to come and see him easily? What about those long periods when his friends can’t make it? He has no family any more. It’s not like hospital visiting, just down the road. For whatever reason, people are not going to do it so easily.

I know he’s a Christian. He prays every night, and he asks me to pray for him. And I do. And then I find all these thoughts come crowding in. What if the jury finds him guilty? What if he does go to jail? What am I supposed to feel if they find him guilty of the things he’s accused of? Then, on the face of things, he would be a terrible criminal. Certainly the rest of the world will think that.

These are my reflections, my trials in the wilderness. Would I choose that fight? How strong are the forces ranged against my friend in the court? I’m figuring out the odds.

And that sort of reflection, that sort of analysis, doesn’t help. When I came back from the court, full of conflicting thoughts and emotions, deep, rational thoughts, thoughts fit for Lent, even – they didn’t help.

But if I thought in the way Jesus started off arguing here, just dropping everything and falling in behind Him; getting rid of all the baggage – then what? I think that is the clue, that is the way to look at what Jesus was saying. Not that one should weigh up carefully the cost/benefit of being a disciple, and then make a reasoned commitment: not that. Nothing wrong with figuring things out – but this is different. This is in a different league. What Jesus is looking for is commitment, commitment untrammelled by the baggage of life.

So when I worry about my friend facing his trial in court, I can reflect all I can, but it won’t get me anywhere. ‘Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?’ Jesus asked, in the Sermon on the Mount, (Matt. 6:27). What will happen, will happen. What Jesus is saying, is raising things to a higher plane. Whatever happens, proved innocent or proved guilty, my friend is still my friend. I can hate the sin – if there is one – but love the sinner. We are all sinners. But Jesus shows that, if we are prepared to make a commitment, to take up a cross and follow him: to be reckless, reckless about the cost – then He will be there.

Even in that court this week, in the context of serious crime, God was there. He gives us reason to hope. He will give my friend reason to hope, whichever way it goes for him. Let us today remember, as part of our Lenten observance, those people who are being tested, tested in a much tougher way than just giving up chocolate. Where they are concerned, let us pray St Ignatius Loyola’s prayer: ‘Teach us, good Lord, …. to give, and not to count the cost’. [St Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556)]

PS – this story has a happy ending. My friend was acquitted of all charges.