Lent – Forty days without . . . Day 1

Day 1

‘Going without . . .’ is a phrase understood in our culture as a sign of ‘deprivation’, which, it is hard to deny, goes against the spirit of our age. Many years ago I remember passing one of those wayside pulpits – a notice board with a ‘thought for the week’ plastered upon it. It said ‘Wants are many. Real needs are few’ Its truth struck me even as a young boy and has remained with me, yet looking back over forty years, comparing my life now, even with life in the early 1970s – one cannot help but reflect that ‘Wants’ have vastly multiplied, and many have become ‘needs’.

This Lent I am unhooking from at least one of those ‘Wants’ become ‘needs’, that is my connection to the internet, a daily check of email and this occasional blog apart, and all forms of technology which have accrued over the intervening years. So for example, books will be for me made out of paper, and sermons hand written. The season of Lent is a time of preparation – a time of discernment. “How are things with my soul?”, is a question which Lent invites us to ponder . . . but to do that requires deprivation. The sated soul cannot know its own condition, buried under the excess we have come to call ‘enough’.

Last year during Lent, I restricted my eating. Not I hasten to add, to the point where I found myself tired or even remotely suffered, but through various practices, ate simply enough and no more. The Fourth Sunday of Lent is a day of easement of Lenten practise, and as it is in England, Mothering Sunday, we feasted. I ate and drank no more than was usual prior to the Fast – a ‘decent’ sized roast dinner, some apple pie for desert, and shared a bottle of wine with my wife. I paid for this excess over the next 36 hours, and it taught me a severe lesson. That to which I had become accustomed was, under circumstances of ‘enoughness’ more than that with which my body could cope. Buried under food, I had lost sensitivity to my condition, to the point that what I had thought a ‘reasonable meal’ made me quite ill.

As ‘going without’ is a state to be pitied in this day and age, so too ‘enough’ is a concept we struggle with, insensitive as we have become to our condition. ‘Deprivation’ in Lent usually goes no further than cutting back on those things which we once saw as luxuries and very occasional treats which have become part and parcel of our everyday consumption. ‘Chocolate anyone?’ It might seem a rather bleak prospect having ‘just’ enough.

How we are shaped in living whilst naively imagine we are choosing how to live our lives . . .

In Lent we remember Jesus driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, away even from his own culture’s ‘enough’, to a place of what appears as utter deprivation, yet it is not. All he has is sold to buy the field.

Buried under what we call ‘life’, and perhaps more deeply buried than ever before in our age, is Life.  As St Luke records, ‘Jesus returned [from the wilderness] in the power of the Spirit  . . .’

Change the date of Easter??? Sermon for Epiphany 3 -2016

Sermon for Epiphany 3 – 2016

Nehemiah 8:1-10
1 Corinthians 12: 12-31
Luke 4:14-21

‘Only connect . . .’

Well the past days have seen the church in a degree of turmoil over the issue of the day . . . the date of Easter. And I for one am glad that at last the churches of the west are getting their act together over this – after all it is SO annoying and disruptive the way the date keeps changing – every year we’re thrown into chaos as we panic about the date of Easter – especially in a year like this when it is so early which means we’re only just off our summer holidays and Ash Wednesday is nearly upon us – February 10 if you were wondering – how will we get everything in good order by then!!!! . . . Well as my son continually has to remind me ‘Dad, you know that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit . . .’ . . . but, then, we all have to start somewhere . . . :-)

Actually I must admit to a degree of agreement with our Orthodox brothers and sisters in this regard  – who understand it as I believe it is, another example of the capitulation of the western church to the spirit of modernity (whilst having the decidedly un-modern humility to acknowledge that even if they thought it were a good idea to fix the date, there is no way they could agree amongst themselves :-) ) The ability to laugh loud and long at oneself is surely a sign of the Kingdom of God :-) And perhaps the greatest sign of the sin which Modernity drags us into is that of taking ourselves way too seriously. I remember some years ago when I got myself into a terrible mess, speaking to my brother about how I was dealing with it – and he stopped me, saying, hang on, You got yourself in the mess, what makes you think that you can get yourself out of it . . . and thanks be to God, I laughed :-) But modernity which is the ‘death of God ‘ culture writ large is all about humans ‘building a better world’ . . . Please. Give me a break :-)

During this season of Epiphany, we have come back again and again to the ‘Modern’ perspective on reality – where ‘this is this’ and ‘that is that’ and there is no sharing in existence – AND the sacramental understanding, which understands that everything is somehow bound together, and shares in existence. That at a personal level, my life has no meaning apart from others – ‘no man is an island’ as John Donne reminds us – and that at the level of the wider creation – all things co-inhere, hold together. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us . . . Jesus Christ, in whom all things hold together . . .’ This fixing of the date of Easter is a Very Modern move and I find it very troubling, indeed I see it in terms close to horror, on three counts – ‘separating out’ this from this, or ‘that from that’.

For it is a triple disconnection. Firstly, but not necessarily most importantly, the date of Easter is fixed by the lunar cycle – by the moon. I have spoken before of how our modern disconnection from the wider created order is the source of the murderous violence we pour out on that Creation. We refuse to allow the land to rest – we cannot wait for it to recover – we pour artificial oil based fertilisers onto the land. 20% of all usable soil has disappeared in my lifetime. We do not recognise our life as woven into the Creation. “Fixing a date according to the lunar cycle??? What does the moon have to do with us??” So, disconnection. This is the date of Easter – That is the lunar cycle.

Secondly it is disconnection from God’s ancient people, the Jews – for the lunar cycle sets the Jewish Passover, which therefore dates for us Easter. Disconnecting from Passover disconnects from our Jewish roots. The church has spent two thousand years trying to disassociate from its roots, as if it had some life apart. The Spirit of Modernity in this present age has wrought an equally appalling murderous devastation in this regard as that meted out to the Creation . . .

And thus finally, and binding the three in One it is therefore a disconnection from the person of Jesus, the Word made flesh, born into God’s ancient people, in whom all things hold together. Thus disconnecting heaven from Earth. We ‘Moderns’ think – there must be A date – the TRUE date. Yet fixing the date of Easter apart from Passover, in a horrible irony disconnects us from a Truthful Easter, which transcends our calendar – one which is bound up with the created order and the ancient story of deliverance of God’s people from slavery in Egypt – a reminder of our own slavery to sin and death, which Jesus and only Jesus rescues us from. For only in Jesus are all things woven together.

Jesus, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, comes to Nazareth. As he must have done many times over the years, he stands up in the synagogue, and the scroll is passed to him. He reads from the prophet Isaiah, announcing God’s mighty act of Salvation – and then makes the astounding claim, ‘Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’ God’s saving work is made present – it is Revealed – it is manifested – it is an Epiphany. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, he has sent me] to let the oppressed go free, 19 [He has sent me] to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This Palestinian Jew is the locus of God’s saving acts in Creation, his Good purposes for all . . .

And what of our response? When Jesus has finished speaking, we read that the people of Jesus’ home town were ‘amazed’ at his gracious words . . . they couldn’t connect the son of Joseph with this Wisdom – they couldn’t connect Jesus to the saving acts of God. By the end of the story they are so enraged that they go to throw him off a cliff!! Yet before we think we know any better, our reading from Paul also does not show the church in a very good light.

As I said last week, 1 Corinthians 13 is a very odd reading for a marriage, for it is addressed to people who think they have it all, yet don’t love one another. It is not addressed to a couple but to a community, who are accustomed to saying, I don’t need you – ‘ I can get on perfectly well without you . . .’ they fail to acknowledge that their life is together . . . The modernist instinct of separation lies within us all – the instinct to individualism . . . but for most of history, the sheer hard labour of putting food on the table, has required some kind of co-operation . . . this individualist account – of Separation come to terrible fruition – has only come about in this age because the release of unimaginable energy in the form first of coal and then of oil has given many people the ability to escape the common bonds of Life Together, to close our door to the world. We are not constrained to have a concern for our fellow human being, because we cannot see how our life is in any sense dependent upon them. ‘We are all Individuals!!’ is the Creed of Disconnection. We readily curse those with whom we disagree, and so are cursed for we do not see that our life is together and recognise only ourselves.

And by and large we have also been blinded to our life with the wider Creation, living as most of us do now in towns and cities . . . I wonder, if we saw the full impact of our buying on the wider world – the ecological cost, the human cost . . . what would we do??? If we saw . . .

Jesus gives sight to the blind and that Seeing is so painful, that his own people would rather throw him off a cliff than see – yet that is not always the case. The pain of opening eyes to the reality of our existence can by the grace of God be born and can be transformative. So we are invited to See that recovery of sight in a shadowy form in our reading from the Jewish scriptures, from Nehemiah.

The people of God have been long in exile – they now stand amongst their modest attempt to rebuild Jerusalem – far from its Solomonic glory, and the Book of the Law is read to them . . . Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground . . . So they read from the book, from the law of God . . . And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law . . . Their eyes are opened at the reading of the Law – they saw as it were the cost of their way of living, their disconnection, from one another and the Land and thus from God – They had ignored the year of the Lord’s favour – they had never enacted Jubilee in which all land was returned to its original overseer – they had never set free economic slaves – they had acted as if there were no God . . . and they Saw, and they wept . . . there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth . . . But that announcement of the Law of the LORD is also the announcement of God’s Salvation – their sorrow leads to Repentance and Rejoicing. Nehemiah and Ezra See the holiness of God in these tears – God is present – Eyes are opened – This is a time for rejoicing, for those who were lost have been found!! “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Above all and through all and in all -The Joy of the LORD is your strength – Jesus comes to us, to reveal our condition – that our Joy may be complete!!

I for one am often guilty of seeing only my sin, of only seeing the devastation I have wrought upon the world – and the Grave danger of that is despair, a Deadly sin. Deadly for it refuses the Salvation of God. Despair says ‘all is hopeless’. Yet that is not what the Jews of Nehemiah’s time were told, nor is it what Jesus brings – Yes he opens our eyes – that we might see, but more that we might see Him, the fulness of God’s purposes, in whom all things hold together. That we might walk in His Light – the Light of His Life, in which all things hold together. That we might have JOY, the Fruit of Life Together in Him, through Him and For Him. God for ever praised.

Amen

The Wedding at Cana . . . it’s never ‘just’ marriage . . . Epiphany 2, 2016

Sermon for Epiphany 2 – 2016

Isaiah 62:1-5
John 2:1-11

When preparing couples for a wedding the selection of a Scripture reading for the service is not straightforward – after all, as I remind the couple, no scripture was written with a marriage service in view. The apostle Paul didn’t sit down one day and think ‘we need something to read out at a wedding . . .’ and run off the 13th Chapter of his letter to the Corinthians – a common choice. This is a rather blunt example of how we imagine that Scripture is primarily written for us, rather than to us.

And that is a very significant difference!! Try as we might, it is very hard not to understand Christian faith as something which is in its essence ‘Anthropocentric’, that is, it’s all about US, and its primary goal is human happiness. So we use the Scriptures – sometimes to bolster a position ‘Well the Bible says . . .’ . . . or we go to a favourite passage in a trying time . . . or we go to it to try to find a suitable reading for a wedding.

One of the worst examples of this ‘putting the Bible to our own use’ is to be found in the marriage liturgy of the Church of England. In the marriage preface, the lengthy discussion of the nature of marriage and its purposes in Creation, we hear ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ was himself a guest at a wedding at Cana in Galilee . . .’ There you are. Jesus is interested in our lives, he even once went to a wedding :-) As if the point of the Scriptures was to justify our lives – as if John in his gospel knowing the other gospels was thinking – hang on a minute – there are no weddings!! So includes the wedding at Cana – as if he’s writing Jesus’ diary for him. ‘On the third day – went to a wedding at Cana with Jesus, his mum and the rest of disciples. Wine ran out. Jesus fixed it . . .’ . . .’just a wedding’, ‘just another miracle’.

Over the last two weeks we’ve been considering the sacramental nature of our existence in Christ. Heaven and Earth woven together in Jesus. Nothing is ever just ‘this’, or just ‘that’. Nothing is ‘just’ anything. It’s never ‘just’ a wedding . . .  For above all and through all and in all, Jesus never ‘just’ does anything . . . certainly he never ‘just’ went to a wedding. So we might ask ‘What is this passage talking about? Is it about my wedding or Jesus’ wedding? Which is it?’ and as we have leaned, the answer is ‘Yes’ :-) Not that human weddings and the marriage of Christ are indistinguishable, but that we cannot think of one without thinking of the other . . .

Hang on a minute though!!! Who said anything about this being ‘the marriage of Christ?’ Jesus went to a wedding, he didn’t get married!!! Did he . . .?

None of the gospels are a diary of the events of Jesus’ life. Indeed such writing was unknown in the time of Jesus – it wouldn’t make much sense for, in the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning ‘Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush ablaze with God.’ For the people of Jesus’ time, nothing was just a thing – everything was crammed full of meaning. So in John, Jesus does not ‘perform miracles’, rather he ‘does signs’. Everything Signifieis. Each of the evangelists in their own way are telling the story of Jesus crammed with heaven – everything ablaze. Just this week for example I noticed Luke does something extraordinary in his account of the 12 year old Jesus left behind in Jerusalem . . . Jesus’ parents miss him . . . three days later they find him. They lost him . . . three days later he is restored to them . . . My point is that the evangelists are presenting Jesus to us – Here He Is. And there is far far more to Jesus than meets the eye  – the evangelists have more significant [sic] things to be doing than detailing Jesus’ diary for the day . . . And that is nowhere more clear than in John

All the other evangelists share a great deal of material, not John. And where he does he is about revealing Glory. He is the Revelation Evangelist – and this affects how he tells the story, All the evangelists except John place the cleansing of the Temple in its chronological position, at the beginning of the Holy Week. John begins his account of Jesus’ public ministry with it. the first time Jesus steps into the public sphere in John, it is in the most dramatic fashion in the Temple, with his startling promise to those who are appalled at his behaviour – Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will rebuild it . . . A little while and you will see me no longer, and a little while and you will see me . . . After three days they found him in the Temple . . .

But before this the wedding at Cana. He and his disciples have been invited – and his mother is there . . . no decent weddings without a mother . . . and the wine runs out . . .

So accustomed are we to Jesus’ miracles, that we might just gloss over this, but this is John – as I said, he isn’t writing up a diary – he is writing these things that hearing them we might believe, that we might See!!  And John does this by carefully leaving space . . . he leaves space in his gospel, by not giving us too much detail . . . He never refers to himself, rather he leaves space leaning against the breast of Jesus for any who would follow, for any whom Jesus loves . . . and there is another space deliberately left, in this story.

We know how it goes, but do we See?? The wine runs out, Mary the mother of Jesus, (whom by the way John also never refers to by name . . .) goes to Jesus and tells him. He tells her his time has not come, but she persists and he tells the servants, ‘Fill the purification jars with water and take some to the Steward of the feast’. So they do it and take it to the Steward. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ the steward called the bridegroom and said to him . . . the steward addresses the bridegroom, ‘You have kept the good wine until now . . .’ Who is he addressing? The bridegroom. Who is the bridegroom . . . And all of a sudden as the disciples watch the words of Isaiah come ringing into their ears

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. , , ,  4You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. 5For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.

And they believed in Him . . . Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

Why a wedding?? The Scriptures are book ended with Marriage. The scriptures open with an account of the Creation, a thinly veiled account of the Temple – the Dwelling place of God – and in its midst, the man and the woman – become one flesh. Jesus draws directly on this account when he speaks of marriage . . . and then in the book of Revelation – at the very end – what do we read ‘I saw the new Jerusalem, coming down from heaven, adorned as a bride for her husband. The apostle Paul speaks of the Church as the bride of Christ. And the Salvation of God is spoken of as God joining himself to his people irrevocably in marriage –  as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.

In this on the face of it common and familiar event, a wedding – we see the whole of Scripture, the whole of God’s Salvation purposes for human kind – we see the beginning, we see the end, because John would have us See Jesus, the one who is the Resurrection and the Life, the One who is The Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. The Source and Fulfillment of God’s purposes – their Culmination. John would have us SEE Jesus

the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; . . . and his disciples believed in him. May the Grace of Believing in Him be granted to all who hear his Word.

Amen

The Baptism of Christ

Baptism of Christ – 2016
Isaiah 43:1-7
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17,21-22

“The life of Jesus is the place in history fitted by God for propitiation,
and fraught with eternity”  Karl Barth – Romerbrief

Last week we spent a little time considering carols. Those which I suggested were the product of the ‘Modern’ mind – carols which ‘told the “facts” of the story of Christmas’ – carols which suggested that they told us the “Truth” about Christmas, or better perhaps based on the assumption that ‘the bare facts reveal the Truth. And ‘Pre-Modern’ carols – carols which too our mind perhaps are less helpful for telling the story, carols like the Holly and the Ivy. Which work with metaphor – causing us to think and hopefully see deeper – and to Pray and to Worship

Now as I said, ‘Modern’ and ‘Pre-Modern’ aren’t referring necessarily to periods in history. Some ‘Modern’ carols go way back . . . A few ‘Pre-Modern’ carols, a very few it must be said, are quite contemporary, because ‘Modern’ and ‘Pre-Modern’ here are lenses through which we view reality . . . we are always looking at what we see through a lens of interpretation, and ‘Modern’ and ‘Pre-Modern’ are two, very different lenses. Lenses which cannot be easily interchanged. Rather like two different languages, for after all languages are particular cultural interpretations of reality – and the problem is that when we ask a question in one language, we get an answer which may well make no sense to us in our language. (This is even more difficult when we assume that because we use the same words we mean the same thing – but referring a particular word to a particular thing is a profoundly modern blindness) Take for example the ‘Pre-Modern’ carol, The Holly and the Ivy. What do berry and blood refer to in the carol?? (A ‘Modern’ question)

The person who sees the world through the glasses of modernity may ask “When the carol mentions the holly berry, as red as any blood? are we supposed to think of the holy berry, or of the blood of Jesus?” And the pre-Modern person will answer, infuriatingly for us, “Yes” . . . “So both the berry and the blood?” “No!” “Then which, the berry or the blood?” “Yes” . . .

As I said last time, ‘Modern’ thought sees things in distinction from one another – this is this and that is that . . . they do not ‘participate’ in one another, as if somehow the redness of the berry in some sense more than a ‘bare memorial’ made the blood of Jesus present in Creation . . . Put another way, the ‘Pre-Modern’ glasses were sacramental – they saw the things of Earth and the things of heaven somehow woven together, like for example a Christmas tartan. ‘Is it red, or is it green?’ “Yes” :-)

Well, today is the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus and when we declare our faith using the words of the Nicene Creed we declare ‘We believe in One baptism for the forgiveness of sins’. Now I am pretty sure that when we say these words, this One Baptism, what comes to mind for most if not all of us, certainly for me, is our own baptism. That this refers to our baptismS . . . but note how our minds take that which is One and turn it into many – separating out your baptism, and my baptism, and yours and yours and yours . . . each we treat as if it were a discrete ‘historic’ event, in my case at the parish Church of St Michael’s, Stanwix, Carlisle, in 1962 on April 1st . . . I know the date and place of My baptism . . . or do I? We are perhaps too quick, too Modern to assume that the One baptism for the forgiveness of sins refers to mine, and yours and yours and yours . . .

There are many many arguments over baptism . . . can you baptise an infant? Should baptism be by sprinkling or immersion? How many godparents? Can it take place outside of a public service of worship. These disputes have raged more or less dramatically in the ‘Modern’ era, not least the rise of the ‘Anabaptists’ whom all ‘good’ protestants declared Heretics! Why well the word anabaptist was a slur and meant ‘Rebaptiser!!’ and of course there is only One Baptism for the forgiveness of sins, ‘you and you and you and you and you – can only be baptised once’
. . . and in all these things we speak as if the Incarnation has never happened, as if the Word does not become flesh and resides amongst us, as if heaven and earth were not woven together in Christ Jesus to the Glory of God, as if the Baptism of Jesus was something other . . . as if this was this and that was that and we’re arguing about THAT!! Not the Baptism of Jesus . . . When we say ‘we believe in One Baptism for the forgiveness of sins’, are we talking about our Baptism or the Baptism of Jesus . . . and the answer comes to us . . . “Yes”

When we share in the Lord’s supper, St Paul reminds us, we are Participating in the body and blood of Jesus . . . when we are baptised, we are participating in the Baptism of Jesus. That is why there is nothing wrong in talking about ‘our’ baptismS when we re-member the Baptism of Jesus, for as we remembered last week – we cannot  – indeed must not imagine the wife without the husband and vice versa, two woven into one, how much less can we talk of our baptism apart from the Baptism of Jesus.

Listen carefully to the words of the Gospel of Jesus again  Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized . . . and [Jesus] was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ ‘Heaven opened’, like the rending of the curtain in the Temple, is the breaking in of the eternal into the Temporal. We are at once seeing things heavenly – the eternal Love of the Father for His only begotten Son – but this is not just a matter of heaven. It is heaven woven together with earth – where?? In Jesus!! It is the Culmination of History. Jesus Baptism – everything about him is not ‘just another discrete event in history’, it is its fulfilment. Heaven woven together with Earth . . . the Great YES. The YES of the Father . . .

In the man, Jesus, in his birth, in his life at Nazareth, in his death upon the cross, in his resurrection and his ascension, and in his Baptism, God takes hold of humanity and says YES – our baptism is our participation in that Yes, our rejoicing in that Yes, our re-echoing that Yes. To the Glory of god the Father. Amen

We cannot speak of one Baptism apart from the Baptism of Jesus without the other, for heaven is opened, the eternal is woven into the temporal, the mortal is dressed in immortality in Jesus, HIs Baptism For US.

Sermon for Christmas 2 – Year C

Second Sunday of Christmas 2016, Year C

Ben Sirah 24:1-12
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:10-18

Heaven and Earth woven together
‘you never just . . .’

‘Oh, I don’t know about you, but I’m caroled out . . .’ – a not untypical complaint at this time of year, not least because we treat Advent as if it were Christmas, indeed we were still in Advent when I heard this complaint this year. I suppose that I’d put it a little differently – ‘there are some carols which if I never sing them again it will be too soon, yet there are others for which e’en eternity’s too short to sing and to ponder.

Insofar as I can draw a line between the two, I’d say it lay between ‘Modern’ carols and ‘Pre-modern’ carols. By ‘Modern’ I do not mean contemporary carols. Rather I mean ‘Modern’ in the sense that they are carols written from a philosophically ‘Modern’ understanding of the world ( a way of looking at the world which is, by the way, several hundred years old  ) – that is, they are only interested in ‘the facts’. Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem, there she has a baby, whom the angels tell the shepherds is ‘Christ the Lord’, so they rush off to Bethlehem and find him wrapped in swaddling bands, lying in a manger, or whatever the latest theory is, and then some astrologers come from far to the east following a star etc.etc.etc. Put another way, ‘Modern’ can only be sung at or with reference to Christmas – yet many carols are not like this. They may reference ‘the facts’ but they do so to open a door to a much denser reality than ‘Modernity’ will allow. They suggest that Carols can be for Life – not just for Christmas . . .

I suppose one way of telling them apart is ‘can you pray this carol? Does it sound as if the writer was caught up in something bigger when they were writing – struggling to find words – using words that led beyond words?’ As I heard someone say in a sermon ‘you never Just pray . . .’ When we pray something happens, we are making a deeper connection, there is more to our life than ‘the facts’, something has been and is being woven together . . .

For we Christians, a good example of how ‘Modern’ thinking trapped us would be over the Eucharist. ‘Modern thinking can be traced back to the C14 when the doctrine of transubstantiation was first taught – that the bread and wine were Changed to be the flesh and blood of Jesus. The Reformation, a largely ‘Modern’ movement, said ‘No!’ The Bread ad Wine are Bread and Wine, but they help us think of the flesh and blood of Jesus. They are purely ‘Symbols’. ‘Modern’ thought might stretch to a symbol – but never to the heart of the Eucharist which is a Sacrament. Not a symbolizing or referential reality – but a weaving together of the physical and spiritual – or better, a weaving together of heaven and Earth. Like green and red threads in a Christmas decoration – maintaining their difference, but at the same time not the same without each other

So ‘The Holly and The Ivy’ A good example of a pre-modern carol – The Holly bears the crown – The holly bears a berry as red as any blood – a bark as bitter as any gall. A ‘pre-modern’, a sacramental vision of Creation sees – the blood of Jesus in all things red, the mixedness of the Kingdom in the Holly and the Ivy growing up together – understands the bitterness of the gall offered to Jesus where it encounters bitterness in Creation. Truly an Incarnational vision – which in the Word made flesh understands heaven and Earth to be woven together in Jesus.

The message of Christmas is ‘never just’ that God in Christ has come to be with us . . . it is that in the Incarnation the realm of heaven and Earth are woven together, and that all Creations speaks of Christ. In the Incarnation of the Word, the immaterial adopts materiality, that the Created may take on the Uncreated – the immortal takes on mortality, that the mortal may take on immortality – and that Seeing the Kingdom of God is losing the sense of separation. That we cannot look at the Created things without Seeing the Creator – through whom they are created. They bear Him to us. The heart of the understanding of an Ikon – Everything becomes in some sense an Ikon

A simple analogy [in its pre-modern sense] is that of marriage, where ‘the two become one flesh’, and so now one cannot truly think of the wife without thinking of the husband or Vice versa – and we See this reality of marriage in children who are the embodiment of that One Flesh – each a One flesh from one flesh – a weaving together of the two – the created revealing its maker one might say. As I said at midnight, how can one look into the eyes of a child and not see countless generations woven together – ultimately how can one not see the True Source of their Life, the Word made flesh – present.

Ultimately the ‘Modern’ account of reality with its insistence on ‘facts’, on ‘this is this and not that’ is one devoid of the possibility of Life, of the participation in Life together which we spoke of as we thought of St John the Evangelist last week – of that profound Koinonia, Fellowship, Participation and sharing in Life. It is perhaps true that the ‘Modern’ age is one where to Share is perhaps the most un-natural thing to do – rather it is a world of facts, of rights of responsibilities of choices – as if none of our lives were in any sense sharing in anything together. ‘Heaven’ being for afterwards – when you die – it is a philosophy of Death. Its carols quickly weary our imaginations

But . . . in our Waking to the Life of the Word made flesh, of Jesus – Wisdom coming to  seek a home – we find a door opened to the eternal participation in the heavenly realm – and concepts such as materiality, space and time take on a Deep Quality.

St Paul knows of this reality – he tells us, ‘the mystery of God’s will [is] . . . to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things in earth’ Christ Jesus – the one in whom all things earthly and heavenly are woven together – from the redness of the berry, to the redness of his blood. All things, to the praise of his glory

Sermon for St John the Evangelist

Sermon for the feast of St John the Evangelist 2015

Exodus 33:7-11
1 John 1:1-5
John 21:19-25

“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known . . .: John 1:18

Jesus said this to Peter to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God . . . Over the three days following Christmas, the Church commemorates those who bear witness to Jesus. Tomorrow, we remember the Holy Innocents, those children whom Herod slew – Yesterday was the feast of Stephen, the ‘first’ martyr. Today we might think we have as it were a little pause from martyrdom – for today we celebrate our own patronal festival – that of St John the Evangelist. Yet to be a martyr in the truest sense is nothing more than bearing witness. The church of old recognised this and so made a distinction between Red martyrs, those like Stephen whose blood was shed, and White martyrdom . . . those who had persevered in faith down long years, their lives a Living witness to the Life which is the light of all people

In an age where even in the church there are many who have wandered from the Truth, who claim new messages and enlightenment, red martyrs will be few and far between, at least in times of stability . . . we are all too aware I hope of brothers and sisters who have not fallen from the truth and have born witness to Jesus through the shedding of their blood in other places . . . No here in our time, the challenge is not to a quick and brutal martyrdom, but to the long slow, day after day, month after month, year after year, witness to the Word made flesh. To the Gospel. To Jesus Christ. And our own St John goes before us showing us the way.

Of course ‘Evangelist’ is not a word that sits easily on the lips of those who have wandered from the Truth. ‘Evangelists’ are all too often the object of lies and derision . . . those who allegedly ‘ram the message down people’s throats . . .’ I must admit I’m still waiting to meet one of them. They must be out there somewhere for everyone seems to be afraid of them . . . :-)

But what is an ‘Evangelist’? Simply one who makes the Evangel, the Good News known. One who makes Jesus known . . . and John is the Evangelist par excellence . . . and his Example is the way we might by Grace become Evangelists ourselves . . . or like St John, white martyrs. For Christians only come in two colours, Red and White. To be a Christian is to bear witness to Jesus, it is to be an Evangelist . . . but how??

Often people complain rightly about sermons of exhortation, and I’m sure I’m not entirely innocent of that charge – sermons which say ‘You must do this!’, or ‘You must do that!’ So ‘You must bear witness to Jesus!!’ And the response may well come back ‘Yes! I know! But How??!!’

St John knows and he would have us know . . . he is the one who reclined next to Jesus – but he is never named as such – he is famously ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ . . . but his name is never used in that context . . . in other words in witnessing to Jesus, he makes space for us to recline next to Jesus . . . this message of staying close to Jesus – of not drifting away runs not only through John’s gospel, but it is woven through all of Scripture. The psalmist tells us that those whose delight is in the Law of the Lord, and on his Law they meditate day and night – they are like trees, Planted by streams which yield there fruit in due season
We heard from the reading in Exodus how Moses went into the tent of meeting, to spend time with God – to talk with him as one would talk with a friend. The lectionary however does us [yet another] dis-service for it omits the last part of the narrative Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. . . Then Moses would return to the camp; but his young assistant, Joshua son of Nun, would not leave the tent.

Joshua, one of only two of the Israelites who left Egypt who entered the land of promise, Joshua Knew God – for he had remained in his presence. Joshua would not leave the tent, like a tree planted by a stream . . . One of the words John uses over and over again throughout the whole gospel is ‘Remain’, or the translation I prefer ‘Abide’ When Jesus first appears in John’s gospel, some of John the Baptist’s disciples set off after him. Jesus turns and asks them, ‘What are you looking for?, they answer ‘Rabbi, Where are you staying – where are you abiding – where are you planted’ Jesus said, Come and see, and they came and saw where he was abiding and they abided with Him the rest of the day . . .

Jesus says ‘I am the Vine and you are the branches . . . Abide in me, as I abide in you . . .’

In our gospel, whilst our attention has been on Jesus and Peter, mysteriously there is John . . . following – staying close to Jesus. Peter has to be recalled to his attention – ‘What about him?’ Jesus replied, ‘If I will that he abide until I come, what is that to you? You follow me’ John is already following, where else would he be, but close to Jesus, abiding with him.

We are reminded that John had reclined next to Jesus at the supper . . . this is described using the same language that John uses when he says ‘No one has seen God. God the only Son who is close to the Father’s heart has made him known’ John reclines close to Jesus’ heart . . . it is where he abides . . . like Joshua, Like the Psalmist, he makes known the one with whom he is intimately acquainted . . .

John the Evangelist remains close to the the heart of Jesus, he makes him known. God the only son who himself is close to the Father’s heart and makes the unseen God known. How do we bear witness? How do we ‘do the work of an evangelist’ – by remaining close to Him . . . and this is possible because he has come to be with us. Why? That we might be with Him. God in Christ has made this possible – he has come to abide with us, that we might abide with Him. The one who is close to the Father’s heart, has come to us, that we might share in his Life with the Father.

He has Loved us, that we might love him, and thus make him known – after the pattern of our beloved brother and patron, St John