What happens when God seems to be at work outside our expectations and in the lives of those we have learned to regard with suspicion or even hostility? God’s ability to surprise us by whom he calls into his Church is at the heart of our reading from the Acts of the Apostles this morning. Philip is sent to a wilderness road by an angel of the Lord. He encounters an Ethiopian eunuch. Doubly suspicious. Not only is this person a foreigner, they are a eunuch. They bear in their body the marks of mutilation by earthly authorities and power. The use of eunuchs in senior positions is itself a result of the fear and suspicion of human sexuality, and the power relations sexual relationship can entail. Our reading is clear that God has brought Philip to this person. The angel of the Lord tells Philip to go to this road. The Spirit sends him over to the Chariot. Philip discovers a faithful response to God’s call in one he might not expect. The eunuch is already worshiping God - he had come to Jerusalem to worship. The eunuch is already alive to the call of God in his life. He’s reading Scripture. It’s the eunuch who suggests baptism, not Philip. “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
It’s the eunuch who reminds Philip that it’s not possible to understand Scripture on our own. ‘How can I, understand unless someone guides me?’.
Philip might’ve been tempted to leave this person to their own devices. A foreigner. A eunuch. Suspicious. Outside of God’s plan for those who look like us, sound like us, act like us, behave like us. The eunuch here stands for all those that the Church might be regarded to view with suspicion, but are already alive to God’s call, are already responding faithfully to God’s call, are already seeking God faithfully in their lives but whom the Church might regard as suspicious. Rowan Williams, writing at the height of debates about the ministry of women, reminds us the Church not only views some groups with suspicion but has itself caused people ‘to be 'poor and excluded', to feel devalued, rejected or dehumanised… not only women, or homosexuals, or divorcees,…all whose history is marked down by the Church as a failure, whose experience is sealed off from the exercise of 'professional pastoring’’.
Philip’s encounter with the eunuch is a parable against such sealing off. The eunuch reminds us of the Church’s call to all those seeking God, even those we might have learned to regard with suspicion or even reject. As a church, we have made huge gains in overcoming the suspicion and rejection of the ministry of women. We are invited during the “Living in Love and Faith process” which the Church of England is starting, to think about how we might begin to overcome the suspicion and rejection of God’s call in the lives of those who the Church once may have viewed with suspicion and rejected or marked down as failure or amoral, especially LGBTQIA members of Christ’s body, fellow members of the vine.
These discussions can often make us fearful. ‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us.’
Our readings today are reminder of how the love of God is at work in the very lives of those we have previously discounted or sealed off. We are challenged ever to be on our guard against failing to recognise the love of God in those we might be tempted to discount or reject or regard with suspicion or even hate. ‘Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also’.
We love because he first loved us.Let us pray in this Mass for the grace to be alert to the love of God wherever we encounter it, and in whomsoever we might be tempted to discount or reject.
Easter 4 - Fr Michael Fuller
Easter 4 is definitely a Sunday that Fr Simon ought to preach. Fr Simon is a theologian and theologians are persons who study the nature of God, religion, and religious beliefs.
Today’s Gospel is full of rich symbolism or metaphor, I’m not sure which! It needs a theologian to understand and expound upon it.
I freely admit I don’t like sheep. When I was 15 I lodged on a farm in North Devon that had 800 sheep and I learnt a great deal about the sheep and whilst that’s a long time ago the memory has remained with me.
Today’s gospel is full of sheep together with the one good Shepherd. It’s a strange world to live in, I suspect the world which many of us have not had much experience off.
The problem is the Gospel reading is insistent and it demands that we look into this world, to venture the grassy slopes. It’s easy for us to want the Bible to be relevant to us and come into our world, but today it’s the other way round. We need to get our walking boots on and get with the sheep.
What are we to make of this world. This is where Father Simon would be best, because one needs to do a lot of research into the Old Testament understanding of shepherding and of actually what went on in the time of Jesus.
We tend to think of the places we might find sheep according to the Psalmist they’re in green pastures and scary valleys. We could also be lead in our study you consider the sacrificial overtones of today’s readings, given that we’ve just gone through Passover.
This morning I want to look at it in a different way, where we imagine we might find ourselves in the world of our Gospel reading. This a stretch of imagination and a take on the façade of a sheep, wandering around listening out for the voice who won who calls us by name.
It requires us to ask what it would mean to be a sheep. I suppose the easiest answer is to say it means to be a creature. I don’t suspect that sheep I think about who they are, they don’t think about career prospects or study programmes, they’ve got more important things to concern themselves with.
After all they’ve got to eat, that’s their purpose, to eat have a little rest, perhaps have a little more rest and some more food. They don’t spend their days thinking that the world revolves around them. They’re happy being sheep as far as we can tell.
But we really need to understand and I think this is important there are rarely solitary sheep, and those people who keep sheep as pets are cruel, for sheep by nature live in communities. It’s almost as if they’re happier being together. We get images of sheep wandering off and being alone and scared, some have some instinct tells it that it needs to be careful because there are roaming predators, That’s why sheep have such loud voices, they can call to other sheep and to the Shepherd.
I don’t think sheep think about living alone it would not be in their nature. Sheep know that they need other sheep, because there very lives depend upon it.
I suppose I could ramble on for another 10 minutes or so about sheep. How intelligent they are, how the wool is used but just let’s finish with one thing about sheep. This is where it might get a bit embarrassing for us to really imagine ourselves as being a sheep. Just bear with me for a moment.
Even if you think you’re a naturally leader. Sheep by nature follow because they have no idea where they’re going. I don’t suppose they have an internal satnav system that tells them where the best pastures are. Consequently they would probably stay in the same pasture. Somehow, they seem to need someone to call out their name, and, yes, sheep do respond to their names. They need someone to tell them where to go; they need someone to show them where to go, they need a guide.
And that guide has to know what they need and can protect them, someone who knows their markings, someone who will help them during lambing season. Someone they can trust who knows the dangers and the places of respite.
And that brings us to us we are as sheep in this world of metaphor because we can’t be anything but sheep. We might think we are masters of our own destiny, I happen to think not which is why to be a sheep, at this point is stating the obvious, is remarkably similar to being a human.
If this pandemic has taught us anything it has taught us that we are creatures who need community. We are people who live in community and in a sense can’t help but follow, since we often have no idea where we’re going. More importantly we are sheep because we are in need of a Shepherd. We tend to follow politicians and then they turn out to be nothing more than human with all that goes with that.
But this shepherd is a particularly good shepherd. One who will lay his life down for us. For me? A mere sheep?
Yes, that’s what this is all about! This exceedingly good Shepherd will take us on a long journey and as we follow the Shepherd there may be ways where we wonder to yourself does the Shepherd know what she is doing? She seems to be taking us to a far and strange land. Those pastures back there seemed good enough for us. Doesn’t she know it’s scary hear?
But then we will arrive. And there will be such glorious sustenance, unexpected gifts of joy, and immense confirmation: this is a good Shepherd, and she knows what she is doing.
Your need for food and water will be met. You will know the comfort of being known and the grace of not having to have it all figured out by yourself.
The Good Shepherd is summoning you – can you hear him? He is singing out your name, he is inviting you to get close, to join the others for the journey, to rejoice in your created goodness, and to follow him wherever he leads, even through those valleys of death. The Shepherd says: Will you come and follow me if I but call your name? Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same? Will you let my love be shown, will you let my name be known, will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?
Your response to the Shepherd might sound like this: Lord, your summons echoes true when you but call my name. Let me turn and follow you and never be the same. In your company I’ll go where your love and footsteps show. Thus I’ll move and live and grow in you and you in me.
Surely, His goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.
Sermon preached by Bishop Michael Colclough at St Cyprian’s Clarence Gate for the Confirmation of Kyle Sawhney on the Feast of St Mellitus, 2021
A man of great Christian faith, dedication and courage but he was an Italian monk, an abbot from Rome, and lived over 14 hundred years ago. Yes, he was a great missionary, a true shepherd of God’s people, who became the first Bishop of London and then the third Archbishop of Canterbury – but what relevance does St Mellitus have to Kyle’s life, to yours or to mine?
We are given a clue if we go back a hundred years before St Mellitus and listen to words of another great bishop, St Augustine of Hippo. Preaching a sermon on the anniversary of his own ordination, St Augustine told his people, “For you I am a bishop, with you, I am a Christian”. The most important event in the still famous Augustine’s life was not being ordained a deacon, a priest or even a bishop. The most important event was when he became a Christian, a follower of Jesus, when he was baptised at the font. Like Kyle, you and me. Being a bishop is important in the life of the Church but being a bishop is functional and secondary to our primary baptismal vocation.
Therein lies the importance of St Mellitus for Kyle and all of us here today. Whatever great things St Mellitus did, whatever his enthusiasm for bringing people to know Our Lord, whatever dedication and courage he showed, all these stemmed from the new life he was given through the Holy Spirit when he was baptised into Christ. That Holy Spirit, promised by Jesus, who is the very breath, the very life of God himself. And the Holy Spirit is given for a purpose. As Jesus says in St John’s Gospel, “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you everything”. (St John 14:26).
Today Kyle will renew the promises and commitment made at his baptism - and central to this service of Confirmation are the words that I will pray when I lay my hands on his head: “Confirm, O Lord, your servant Kyle with your Holy Spirit”. Yes, this great gift of God, requested for us by Jesus, is given anew and afresh to Kyle today. You and I will witness this wonderful event in Kyle’s life and the life of the whole Church.
The sad thing is, of course, that we can all forget the wonder of so great a gift. Then we can fail to relate to the Holy Spirit in prayer and awareness of His presence. How then can the Holy Spirit “teach us everything”? The Hebrew psalmist has the answer: “O that today you would listen to his voice!”
The saints, like St Mellitus, became the heroes and heroines of our faith simply because they “listened to his voice”. Yes, they kept their relationship with the Holy Spirit alive and were led by that Spirit to embrace both God’s love and the particular task God had for each of them. Like the saints Kyle and we are called to do something for God. To help with this I have a gift for Kyle today. It’s a prayer. It’s a powerful prayer, a prayer that my wife and I pray daily, a prayer I have used for over 50 years. I find it a helpful prayer because it reminds me of the utter wonder of God’s gift of the Holy Spirit and the way in which the Holy Spirit can work in me.
But before we get to the prayer, here’s a tip about praying – praying rather than saying any prayer. It was St Benedict, who advised his monks to listen “with the ear of (their) hearts”. Good advice for us. First listen to the words we are praying and own them not simply with our lips but in our hearts. Then, listen for God’s promptings, calling, God’s encouragement for us.
Please turn to the prayer at the end of your Mass booklet and I will point out some words that speak strongly to me:
Holy Spirit, Lord and giver of life, Who didst overshadow Mary that she might become The Mother of Jesus our Saviour; Do thou likewise work silently in my heart To form within me the fullness of His redeemed And redeeming humanity; Give me a share in his loving heart to burn with love For God and for people; Give me a share in His joy and His sorrow, His weakness and His strength, His labour for the world’s salvation. And may Mary, blessed among women, Mother of our Saviour, pray for me: That Christ may be formed in me; That I may live in union of heart and will With Jesus Christ, her Son, Our Lord and Saviour. Amen
Easter 3 - Fr Simon Cuff ‘You are witnesses of these things’ words from our Gospel reading, from the Gospel of St Luke. May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. I’ve inherited many things from my Dad. A rapidly receding hairline, almost guaranteed cardiovascular disease, and a love for quite slow-paced crime dramas. Give me a flawed detective, an unexplained crime, and a guilty person who is almost certainly the most famous person in the cast in that week’s episode and I can waste hours of an evening, and did during lockdown. As fans of crime dramas or murder mystery novels know, witnesses are vital components of any good plot. Today’s readings allow us to consider what it means to be ‘witnesses’. In our reading from the book of Acts, Peter addresses the people as a witness to the events of Christ’s passion and God’s raising him from the dead. ‘To this we are witnesses’. In our Gospel, Jesus appears to his disciples and opens the Scriptures for them: ‘thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things’. It’s perhaps easy for us to understand how the disciples could be witnesses to these things. They witnessed the arrest. They saw the unjust trial. His body in the tomb. But they are not only witnesses to his passion and death, but to his Resurrection. Scripture avoids describing the moment of Resurrection. It is not simply a ‘coming back to life’ as Lazarus came back to life. The consequences of the Resurrection are more profound - not a return from death, but the defeat of death. The disciples are not so much witnesses to the Resurrection - ‘what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard’ - but to the Risen Christ. They are witnesses to the Risen Christ appearing to them. Here too Scripture is careful to avoid too close a description of the nature of the Risen Christ. There are continuities between the earthly and Risen Christ - flesh and bones, the scars on his hands and feet - and discontinuities - his sudden coming among them, the seeming obscureness of his identity at points as on the road to Emmaus. The disciples are witnesses to these things. The disciples are witnesses and so are we. We might not have seen the Risen Christ in the same way as the disciples were afforded his presence before the Ascension. But we are witnesses to the Risen Christ in his presence among us in this place - in worship, in word and sacrament, in those around us. We too are witnesses. To be a witness is to be called upon to share what we know. Like any witness, we are called upon to share our testimony. To share how we have encountered Christ in this place, in the Eucharist, in our fellowship. We are called upon, like those first disciples, to go from this place and witness to Christ. To make known what we have come to see. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. The witness of the Saints and of those who nourished our faith enabled us to become witnesses to the Risen Christ. It’s through our witness that others come to be fellow-witnesses with us of the Risen Christ alive in our midst. On Saturday at noon we shall celebrate with Kyle as he joins the cloud of witnesses who have received the Sacrament of Confirmation. Our witness to Christ in this place has enabled his witness, and we pray too that he and others will go on to bring others to witness to the Risen Christ. It’s through these acts of witness that we come to see and know the power of the Risen Christ among us and the work of God in our very midst. It’s through these acts of witness that we become alive to the Risen Life to which we are being called. Above all, as we read elsewhere in the first letter of John, it’s through our commitment to one another in love that we come to see God, even now: God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. To this we are witnesses.
Easter 2 2021 – Fr Michael Fuller The Second Sunday of Easter is Thomas’ Sunday, and every year the Gospel tells the story of Jesus’ special appearance among the Apostles to greet Thomas. However often we hear the story there’s still much to appreciate about Thomas, and much we can learn from him. I suppose the first thing to learn is about the disciples and faith, the second is about doubt in general. Let’s start with Thomas’ unfortunate adjective. He’s always called “doubting”, as if the other disciples had more faith than he did, and that made Thomas a bit of a problem. But it didn’t work that way. The problem really wasn’t with Thomas; it was with the others. Remember what happened. For one reason or another, Thomas was not with the others on Easter morning, lets not speculate on why; so Thomas didn’t share their experience of the risen Lord. That meant they had something he didn’t have, and instead of their experience, what Thomas had was their word about what they had seen—and that wasn’t enough. You see, Thomas never doubted Jesus; he doubted the other Apostles. The problem was not really Thomas—the problem was the credibility of the others. They had seen the risen Jesus; they had been given his peace and his Spirit; they had been sent by him to continue his work in the world. We heard all of that in the first part of the Gospel reading. It was now up to these witnesses to share the good news. That’s what they were sent to do. And, heaven help them, their witness to the Resurrection was not even compelling enough to convince Thomas; and Thomas wanted to believe – he was ready to believe. It’s the same way now. The temptation is to say that the problem is out there, with all of those unbelievers like Thomas, if they would only shape up and believe better, then things would improve immeasurably. It’s easier to do that, to complain about them, than it is to pay careful attention to the less-than-persuasive words and lives of today’s disciples, of us who are called to be witnesses to Jesus. It feels better to call Thomas “doubting” than to call the disciples—or ourselves—“unconvincing”. But Thomas is here to make us uncomfortable, not smug. Remember, faith almost always comes to people through the faith of others, through the life and ministry of the Church. Virtually everyone “out there” is like Thomas. Virtually everyone “out there” depends upon people who already believe to point them toward faith. Virtually everyone “out there” depends upon us. The other disciples told Thomas, “We have seen the Lord.” But they were scared; they were hiding behind locked doors; they were only talking to each other. Just a week earlier, Jesus had stood among them, but you wouldn’t think so from them. They certainly didn’t act like something wonderful had happened at Easter. So, Thomas didn’t believe them, even though he wanted to. That’s the way it was, and all too often, that’s the way it still is. Thomas was not the problem. Today’s doubting Thomas’s are not the problem. The problem is the authenticity, the power, and the persuasiveness of the Church, you and me. That’s the bad news. But there is good news here as well—Good News for Thomas, for the disciples, and so for us. For Christ is risen, and he comes to us. Risen, he comes to the Church, to us, even when the Church continues to huddle in fear behind locked doors. And he brings to completion the work that a weak and sinful collection of disciples cannot do alone. Work that we cannot do alone. The good news is that Jesus continues to be with us, that he continues to be for us, and that he continues to speak to us and to his world his words of forgiveness and of peace. This doesn’t mean we are let off the hook. It doesn’t mean we have no responsibilities and no vocation to service. It doesn’t mean that Jesus will do it all for us, and we can take it easy. But it does mean that we are able to continue, in hope and in confidence. It does mean both, that we are not alone, and that we do not need to be afraid. Sometimes we fail, as the disciples failed with Thomas. But we don’t stop, and we don’t give up, and we are free to do our best, even if it’s risky. While there is always room for improvement, there is never cause for despair. We continue to struggle forward together, and Jesus continues to be found among us. The heart of the story of doubting Thomas is not about doubt, it’s about the call of the Church to witness to the Resurrection. And the greatest piece of good news is not that Thomas comes to faith; the biggest bit of good news is that the Risen Lord still comes to his Church. That good news is for us. We are called to be witnesses to the Resurrection, and our Lord is with us. At the same time, we can’t let Thomas slip by us without saying something about doubt, real personal, deep seated doubt as to the truth or value of parts of this whole religious enterprise. First of all, doubt is always part of the life of faith. There is never authentic faith without doubt; that’s something we all know about. And doubt is not at all a bad thing; it’s a necessary thing. Doubt happens, often in times of crisis and tragedy, sometimes just all by its own. Faith matures with ups and downs, not in a straight line. Anyway, let’s consider one tiny thing about doubt that we can learn from Thomas’ story. Did you notice that Jesus did not come to Thomas while Thomas was his own, out and about, just thinking things over? Jesus came to Thomas when Thomas was with the disciples, when he was within the fellowship of believers. Thomas was smart; he didn’t believe the disciples, but he did stay with them. He knew that if his doubt were ever to be met, it would be met there—not somewhere else. That’s usually the way it is with us. Our doubts are usually met as we stay within the community of faith, as we hang in there doing the sorts of things we would be doing if we weren’t bothered, or overwhelmed, with doubt. It was a good thing, and not a hypocritical thing, for Thomas to stay with the others even when he didn’t believe a single word they said. So it is for us. There’s a very real connection between hanging around this place, and living this life, and the gift of meeting the Lord. That connection isn’t simple, and it isn’t exact, and it isn’t at all predictable, but we can depend on it. He will come to us, through whatever barriers and obstacle we put up. Sometimes, as it must have been with Thomas, what turns out to be the greatest moment of faith doesn’t feel like faith at all; it feels like doubt. Sometimes what turns out to be the greatest moment of faith feels like just hanging on and just showing up; it feels like waiting and going through the motions. But that’s alright; that’s the way it works. That was what Thomas needed to do, and that was all Thomas needed to do. Jesus did the rest. It still works like that. Alleluia, Christ is Risen. The Lord is Risen indeed, Alleluia.
Easter Day 2021 - Fr Michael Fuller
This resurrection is an event our world and probably some of us find hard to understand – Easter bunnies and chocolate eggs are a bit easier to fathom.
This is because we have told ourselves again and again that life ends in death - the dead are dead and gone.
The Christian claim however, is that is what one dead man did. The whole point of the Resurrection was that it was unique.
The only way you can say dead men do not rise is if you have already decided that cannot happen, that we live in a closed universe, which is precisely what many of the philosophers of the Enlightenment did.
The result is that you end up fitting the Resurrection into already existing naturalistic categories, explaining it as an idea in the mind of the disciples, or a kind of spiritual resurrection of the soul that does not affect the material world.
Yet this event is so unique, so stupendous, that it breaks all our systems and expectations – you simply cannot fit it into ordinary human categories.
Instead it has to become the basis of a completely new way of thinking and living.
If there is a God who raises the dead, everything looks different. Life does not necessarily end in death, but death can be the gateway to life.
There is hope for a world decaying and ravaged by pandemic, because Jesus’ decaying and ravaged body was resurrected to new life.
The most hopeless of situations can still be endured, because if the dead Jesus was raised, then there is always hope, and where there is hope there is life.
The Resurrection is not an illustration of something else; it is the event of which everything else is an illustration.
The Resurrection is not a metaphor for spring and the renewal of life at this time of the year – it is the other way round.
Spring, and the new life we see bursting all around us is an annual reminder and metaphor for the Resurrection of Christ which is the first-fruits of the resurrection of all things in the new creation.
The Resurrection turns everything on its head for a tired and predictable world. And that is why Easter Day comes as an explosion of joy.
How then are we to demonstrate the power and truth of the Resurrection to our sceptical culture?
Athanasius, writing in the fourth century, gives a surprising answer. The evidence for the Resurrection is not established primarily through historical analysis or even pointing to the empty tomb, but in the lives of those touched by it. He writes:
“The Saviour is working mightily among humankind. Every day Jesus is invisibly persuading numbers of people all over the world… to accept His faith and be obedient to His teaching. Can anyone, in face of this, still doubt that He has risen and lives, or rather that He is Himself the Life?
Does a dead man prick our consciences, so that we throw all the traditions of their forebears to the winds and bow down before the teaching of Christ? If He is no longer active in the world, as He must needs be if He is dead, how is it that He makes... the adulterer cease from his adultery, the murderer from murdering, the unjust from avarice, while the profane and godless man becomes religious?”
The best evidence for the Resurrection does not primarily emerge from historical enquiry & investigation, but is found in the lives of people who believe and live it, who meet the risen Jesus Christ and are changed by that encounter.
So my prayer is that in our churches this Easter, we will encounter the risen Christ afresh, so that we learn freedom from fear, hope in despair and a new way of living, because of our belief in a God who raises the dead, with whom all things are possible and who is doing a new thing.
One of the primary ways in which that encounter is deepened is in our life of prayer.
I am concerned about the lack and paucity of our corporate prayer life.
One excellent way to take this forward might be, in response to the call from our Archbishops to pray for the evangelisation of the nation, to join with Christians across the country in planning a special prayer event in your parish during the period between Ascension and Pentecost - 5th to 15th May.
Prayer and the receiving of the Holy Spirit are at the very heart of Easter living, why? Because prayer changes things.
But beware prayer leads to Mission and that’s where we need to go!
Today, in a moment or two, we will together share the privilege of renewing our Baptismal Vows.
Now, we can either be very British about it and stand in our seats and shuffle around a bit, mutter responses and all-but fall to pieces when sprinkled with Holy Water, generally make a pigs ear of it.
Or we could stand together, upright, resolute and as the water hits us, use it to mark ourselves with the Cross as we were marked in our Baptism. We can be resolved to make a go of this new resurrection life for God’s sake and in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The symbolism is tremendous. It shows the meaning of Easter. As we are sprinkled it is simulating drowning, we will be united with Jesus Christ in his death.
Christ's death on Good Friday was a judgment on humanity, for it brought out the worst in us. Equally, it was also our God-given opportunity to reawaken the best in us.
Sprinkling will also be a kind of death for us today: It can be an end to our old lives. For, just as Jesus rose from death, so we can, now united with Him, be raised to embark on our new life in Christ.
We can do it with the help of God's Holy Spirit. And we can do it in the company of other Christians.
We can't go it alone, even though our pride would like to. It's a very English heresy and a very old one to believe we can build our way to heaven and thus get to God unaided.
This Easter, I am mindful of the devastation meted by terrorists this week. I pray for those adversely affected by such horrors.
I know that my concern is all but a fragment of God's commitment to God’s creation, so when I rise from my knees I can do so confident that God’s love and justice will ultimately prevail.
Every day I take a moment to gaze up at the cross. It is a daily reminder to me that all of us are called to take up our cross and that the life of discipleship was never meant to be a picnic.
The cross is also a powerful symbol of truth over falsehood, hope over despair and life beyond death. As St Paul writes and we recited twice a day in Holy Week, "The message of the cross is sheer folly to those on the way to destruction, but to us, who are on the way to salvation, it is the power of God."
Christ is risen, He is risen indeed. Alleluia
Good Friday 2021 - Fr Michael Fuller
After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’
My personal reflection this week has been concerning the reality of the events. What really happened? How have we made such a gruesome happening have become matters that trip lightly off the tongue or have been set to music.
Perhaps I was looking for a Mel Gibson type Passion, all blood and guts! I was certainly hoping to move from a romanticised version of the events, which I think in many senses we have. Pictures of crosses entwined with daffodils come to mind.
During this week I have read and reread St John’s account and for the first time I began to see things in a different light.
John’s account of the events is really very different from the Synoptics.
Can we really call John’s story of Jesus’ death that we have just heard sung, a “passion narrative”, because “passion” implies suffering and in the fourth gospel there is a sense in which it is not Jesus who suffers.
As Jesus moves with grace and eloquence toward the hour of his death, it is everyone around him who suffers.
Judas is exposed as a traitor and Peter as a coward. Annas passes him off to Caiaphas, who passes him off to Pilate.
Pilate is afraid of him and tries to let him go, but the temple clergy will not hear of it. “We have no king but Caesar,” they say, when push comes to shove, revealing themselves for the imperial lap dogs they are.
Meanwhile Jesus does not beg, John does not have Jesus stumble or get someone to carry His cross, He does not cry out.
In John’s story, Jesus knows everything before it happens and he remains stalwart to the end, which is why it is so strange to hear him say “I am thirsty” all of a sudden; like any ordinary human being who has been left out in the sun too long.
Anticipating the question, John has answered it ahead of time by putting in the explanation in parenthesis. Jesus said what he said in order to fulfil scripture, John tells us.
He did not say it because he was really thirsty. He said it so that psalm 69 would come true: “They gave to me poisoned food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink”.
This was important to John because he wrote his gospel near to the end of the first century, when things had become really bad between the Jews who followed Jesus and those who did not.
John’s congregation did not need to hear about a Messiah who could not carry his own cross or who wondered out loud where God had gone.
They needed to hear about a strong Messiah who was above reproach, and that is the Messiah John told them about. Not by making anything up, necessarily, but by how he told the story.
In his gospel, nothing is simply lost, it seems. Water is never just plain water; it is living water, with currents that go back to creation.
Bread, it is never just plain bread. It is manna from heaven, the bread of angels. Wine is never just plain wine. It is the wine of God’s presence, especially when there are rivers of it. It is the sign that God’s new age has come to pass point
John loves signs. So when Jesus says, “I am thirsty,” John is quick to let us know that we are not talking about ordinary thirst here. Jesus is a busy fulfilling scripture.
Jesus is letting John’s congregation and us here today, and anyone else who wants to know, that what is happening to him has been in the works for a long time.
Jesus is not some afterthought God had when plan A did not work out. He has been around since the beginning. He was there when the Spirit first moved over the face of the waters. He was there before Abraham; before Moses; before Gabriel ever went to pay a visit to Mary.
What is happening to him now is the last act in a very long drama.
He is finishing it up now and He is thirsty for more than sour wine. Having accepted capital punishment for the sin of being human, he is now suffering the consequences of that sin.
He is cut off from the waters of life. He has given himself away for love and this is how it looks: he is not only dehydrated but also drained of divinity, like a reservoir whose dam has been destroyed to save the land from drought.
He has chosen it willingly, but at what cost: that He who turned water into wine, who stilled the storm and walked on water should find himself in such a dry place.
Sour wine will not fix it, but sour wine is what he gets, and if it does not make him cry then it must almost make him laugh. He has always had a hard time making himself understood.
When he tried to tell Nicodemus about the miracle of a new birth, Nicodemus said, “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” when he tried to tell the woman at the well about living water, she said, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep.” People who take him literally almost always miss his point, so of course they give him sour wine to drink.
He drinks it to fulfil of the scripture, but it is not what He is thirsty for. He is thirsty for heaven. He is thirsty for reunion with God, and there is only one way he knows how to get there. “Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” He asked.
“I am thirsty” is what he says, but what he means is, I am ready. “
Maundy Thursday -Fr Simon Cuff If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.’ Words taken from our Gospel reading, the Gospel of John, the 13th chapter beginning to read at the 14th verse. May I speak in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
You might’ve heard of the children’s school activity: ‘show and tell’. It’s probably more common in America, but I remember doing something similar once at primary school. The child takes in an object that they particularly value, ‘show’ it to the class, and ‘tell’ their peers all about why they decided to bring this or that.
Today marks the first day of the Sacred Triduum, the ‘three days’ of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday that stand at the heart of Holy Week and at the heart of our faith.
Over these three days, the liturgies we celebrate offer us a ‘show’ and ‘tell’ of their own. The words and actions of the liturgy of each of these three day show and tell us something of the mystery unfolding before our eyes.
There are many examples of this - from the sudden stripping of the altars marking Jesus’ betrayal, to the altar of repose becoming for us the garden of Gethsemane in which we are invited to stay awake and watch with Jesus, to the cross marking Jesus’ death, and the glorious proclamation of the Resurrection in the light of the Easter candle and joyful singing of the exultet. These days are rich with words and actions which show and tell us the very heart of the Christian faith. One example of what’s being shown to us here demonstrates to us the unity of these three days.
Having greeted each other this evening, we are not greeted again. We are not dismissed tonight. Tomorrow we leave in silence. The events we mark today are joined together as a seamless robe. This liturgical unity, almost as if we are celebrating one divine service over the course of three days reminds us that the events we commemorate transcend time as we celebrate our humanity being redeemed into eternity. These three days transcend secular time as we’ll hear on Saturday: ‘all time belongs to him and all ages’.
In our Gospel reading this evening, we see Jesus engaged in act of ‘show’ and ‘tell’ of his own. He gets up from table, removes his outer garment, takes a towel, wraps it round his waist and washes the disciples’ feet. Ordinarily our liturgy would re-enact this for us, showing and telling us of the humility Christ demonstrates as the hallmark of the Christian life. This is not the only act of ‘show’ and ‘tell’ that takes place on the night before he dies.
As we read in our epistle, and are about to celebrate Jesus ‘shows’ and ‘tells’ us as he institutes the eucharist. Taking some bread, thanking God for it, breakout in and saying: ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this as a memorial of me.’ In the same way he takes the cup after supper, and says, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Whenever you drink it, do this as a memorial of me.’ He ‘shows’ us the pattern for each and every eucharist and ‘tells’ us to do this in memory of him, and to keep in doing it, ‘until the Lord comes’ as Paul writes.
Just as the eucharist is not just a memorial event, but a celebration through which Jesus enters into our midst in bread and wine. So too the institution of the eucharist isn’t simply for our benefit. It’s not a simply act of show and tell. Jesus is showing us the pattern for each eucharist and telling us to do likewise, but he’s doing something more besides.’ ‘This is my body, which is for you… ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood.’.
It’s not just that he’s performing a demonstration for us, as in the washing of feet, he’s identifying himself with the bread and the wine which is being given to us for our sake. He’s so completely identifying himself with this bread and this cup. He’s laying down his life through them, even before his executioners will attempt to take his life from him on the cross tomorrow. Their attempt to take his life will fail.
It will fail because he has already laid down his life for us, he has identified complete with the bread and wine of that first eucharist. It will fail because he has already poured himself out in bread and in wine. It will fail because it is impossible to extinguish the very author of life himself. It will fail because he will rise again on Easter Day.
Like all acts of corruption and unjust power, Christ’s arrest and trial and execution are ultimately futile. In their own terms, they will fail. They will not achieve what they set out to do. They will not put an end to the life of Christ. Like any martyr, unjustly murdered for a just cause, Christ’s murder will not succeed in its purpose. Martyrs’ deaths refute their murderers intent: ‘what didn’t you do to bury me, but you forgot that I was a seed’ as the poet Christianopoulos puts it. So often the body of the martyr becomes the seed of resistance, pointing toward the end of the unjust regime which tries in to put the martyr’s cause to death along with the martyr themselves. ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’
What we are shown and told in the course of the next three days is yet more remarkable still. Those who would take Jesus’ life do not realise what they do. In their putting to death the very author of life, their attempt to extinguish him becomes the very source of new life for us. Their attempt to bring death fails, because in Christ there is only life. ‘What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people’
Christ’s death, which we have shared in baptism, becomes the foundation stone for the new and risen life in him. The death we proclaim each time we celebrate the eucharist, the life in which we are nourished each time we feed on him. The events we are shown and told over these three days are the foundation of the Christian life, of our new life in him. We are shown and told these events through our liturgies of these three days, and sent out to show and tell others, so that they too may share in the death of Christ through baptism, and the joy of the risen life we are preparing to celebrate, our life together in this place.
Palm Sunday 2021 - Fr Michael Fuller
You might not know that Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem was not the only procession the city saw that day. In the year 30 AD, Roman historians record that the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, led a procession of Roman cavalry and centurions into the city of Jerusalem.
Imagine the spectacle of that entry. From the western side of the city, the opposite side from which Jesus enters, Pontius Pilate leads Roman soldiers on horseback and on foot, resplendent in shining armour with banners, swords and spears, with drums beating to keep time.
Pilate, as governor of the region knew it was standard practice for the Roman governor of a foreign territory to be in its capital for religious celebrations. It was the beginning of Passover, a strange Jewish festival that the Romans allowed. However, the Romans must have been aware that this festival celebrated the liberation of the Jews from another empire, the empire of Egypt. So, Pilate had to be in Jerusalem. Since the Romans had occupied this land by defeating the Jews and deposing their king about 80 years before, uprisings were always in the air. The last major uprising had been after the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem may or may not have been planned to occur on the same day as Pilate’s procession through the western gate of the city. Whether it was planned or not, the two processions provided a contrast that was unmistakable. For, you see, Pilate served the Son of God, too. The late emperor Augustus, was said to have been fathered by the god, Apollo, and conceived by his mother, Atia. After his death, the legend had it that he was seen ascending into heaven, to take his place among the gods. Augustus’ successors—Tiberias during Jesus’ life and ministry—also bore divine titles, until later in the first century the emperors would demand to not only be addressed as “God,” but to be worshipped as God also. A contrast between kings and kingdoms was on display that day in Rome. And, although many of the ordinary people thought they sided with Jesus, they did so for the same reasons the Pharisees and others sided with Rome. They thought Jesus could do for them what Rome had done for their rulers, make their lives better, deliver them from the oppressive system under which they lived and worked, and turn the tables on the Romans. That’s why the crowd turns on Jesus by the end of the week. They don’t think he’s going to do any of those things. And, in addition, Jesus is going to make life worse for them, not better. Their religious leaders, all of them, who never agree on anything, agree that Jesus is going to attract the attention of the Roman empire, especially during Passover, and Rome will come down fast and hard on the entire nation. So, when Jesus is accused, when he is brought by Pilate before the angry mobs, they want to be rid of him. Jesus, in their minds, never did what they wanted him to do. He never defeated the Romans, he never dissolved the unfair tax system, he never put ordinary people in charge of the government, and furthermore, he never would. To appease the crowds that swelled the city of Jerusalem, Pilate had the custom of releasing prisoners, many of whom were political prisoners. But on this last week in the life of Jesus, Pilate offers the crowd a choice between Barabbas, a known robber, and Jesus, a failed Messiah. Fearing that if Jesus were released, he would start all over again, the crowd begged for Barabbas to be released, and for Jesus to be executed. And not just by any means, “Crucify him” was the cry. Because crucifixion was the one form of capital punishment that would show Rome the Jews were completely loyal, and would humiliate Jesus, even in death. Sorry, I’m getting ahead of the story of this week, a story which we will conclude next Sunday. But for one moment, ask yourself, “If I had been in Jerusalem that day, and had seen both processions passing by, which would I have chosen to follow?” Because that is the choice we make each day. To choose power and might over love. To choose “the way things are done” over “the way God intends them to be.” Two processions. Two theologies. Two choices. Which would you choose? What kind of king do you expect?
Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation words from our epistle, the letter to the Hebrews, the fifth chapter, beginning to read at the 8th verse. May I speak in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
I wonder what you’re passionate about. People have very many different kinds of passion. Cooking, hobbies, places, music. There are as many kinds of passion as there are people. When we hear the word ‘passion’, we might not think immediately of particular hobbies or interests. We might think of passionate episodes in novels or movies, romantic literature or operatic scenes.
When we hear the word ‘passion’ we perhaps don’t immediately think of the sufferings of Christ, and yet this is what the Church means by ‘passion tide’ - the season we are entering as we turn towards Holy Week and Easter. What’s going on here? Why this strange use of the word ‘passion’?
It’s perhaps worth noting that passion in its everyday sense can be a strange thing, or at least appear strange to us. What is a passion for one person will bring about complete boredom in the rest of us. Why do they enjoy cycling so much? What could possibly be interesting about the finer points of that particular form of crochet? What do they see in them? The passion to which we begin to look today is perhaps just as strange. The passion of Christ - his suffering for us is, or should be startling. Here, in Christ, God suffers for us. God who is incapable of suffering takes on and defeats death. This should be startling. This mystery is at the heart of salvation. In Christ, God suffers. And through that suffering our death is overcome. The root for our word ‘passion’, which has come to mean strong feeling or emotion, was initially ‘to endure, suffer or undergo’. It’s a long-standing part of the Christian doctrine of God that God is not subject to suffering, God is not a thing in the universe and so not some “thing” which can endure or suffer or undergo. All of this invites us to look afresh at the ‘passion’ which we are invited to begin to contemplate today. We are invited to be startled all over again at the mystery of our salvation set before us. That God in Christ suffers. That God in Christ has become human to take our suffering upon himself and to redeem it. That the death of God in Christ would be the site of our new life, the new life of Easter: ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’. The story of Holy Week and Easter is so familiar to us we can become dull to the mystery which is at its heart: the Incarnation, God’s the Son life’s as a human in Christ Jesus. The ‘passion’ of Christ, God’s suffering and death in Christ for us. The Resurrection. The defeat of death once for all and the new life which Christ’s death and resurrection brings about. This should be startling. This should be as fresh in our imaginations as when we first head this good new story. This ‘passion’, this mysterious suffering of the Incarnate one who as God is unable to suffer, this should be a source of endless fascination, endless inspiration, endless invigoration for us. Today, this Passion Sunday, we are invited to allow this passion to be so, to allow this passion to be the passion which is at the centre of our lives.This Holy Week and Easter may we renew our earthly passion for the saving passion that Christ must undergo. And in our passion and enthusiasm for that saving passion may we be found at the foot of the cross as he suffers and dies for us, and with him in that Garden of new life as he opens for us this strange and overwhelming and invigorating life which is the Risen life of Easter. It is that life which we celebrate now, as we rejoice in our Communion with him in this Mass and as we make our Spiritual Communion together. Amen.
Lent 3 Fr Simon Cuff
Lent is a season in which the theme of healing is especially pertinent. One of the most haunting hymns of the Lenten season begins boldly: ‘Now is the healing time decreed For sins of heart and word and deed, When we in humble fear record The wrong that we have done the Lord’.
This morning I want us to reflect together on the nature of healing, and what the Gospel and this season of Lent have to say to us about true healing.
I’m not sure whether you saw the internet ‘meme’ that appeared shortly after we went into the first lockdown last year. Images and videos on social media proclaimed that lack of human activity and cuts in pollution caused by lockdown had an unintended benefit. ’Nature is healing’ they declared.
Pictures of Venice’s canals free from oil slick. Videos of Goats roaming freely throughout Welsh towns. Roads free of cars and skies of planes. And, yes, even toilet paper had returned to its natural home - resting on the well stocked shelves of a local supermarket.
‘Nature is healing’.
As time went on the internet, as it does, got a little carried away. Giant rubber ducks were seen passing under Tower Bridge. Daleks circled roundabouts. Plastic dinosaurs frolicked in Times Square. All signs, so the creators joked, that ‘nature was healing’.
‘Nature is healing’. What do we mean when we talk about healing in this context? For those who shared those originals images of a slick-free Venice or animal populations roaming where they had not been able to roam before seemed be looking backwards. They were seeing signs of what life might’ve been like before human activity had placed oil on the waters of the canal or had cut off towns and cities from flocks and herds.
It’s easy to view healing as a kind of ‘restoration’, a kind of going backwards.
It’s easy to view the healing that’s needed in the face of climate change as a kind of going backwards to levels of impact before we began to take our planet for granted.
It’s easy to view physical healing as a kind of going backwards to before we were made unwell with this or that condition or ailment, for healing to be understood to be “once-again” disease or ailment free.
Yet for Christians healing isn’t so much about going backwards to an untroubled past, but acknowledging the reality of what’s being lived through and the promise of what lies ahead, the sure and certain hope of what is to come in the midst of whatever trial or disease or condition through which we find ourselves being called to healing.
There are a number of words used in the Bible for healing. For example, in the New Testament, therapeuo derives from the word for attendant or aide (therapon) reminding us that healing is not something we do on our own. It’s not just the sick or the planet that heals. We are reminded of the pastoral role of accompanying and attending to those who are sick or unwell incumbent upon all of us.
In the Old Testament, Rapha, one of the Hebrew words translated as ‘to heal’ has the sense of mending or stitching back together, not a return to the old but a restoration to a new whole.
We’re not simply called to turn back the clock on climate change or restore a patient to a former disease-free state. A world that recovers from climate change will be a world that still bears the scars of our human exploitation of the species extinct and habitats destroyed. A body that recovers from a disease carries retains antibodies and T-cells.
Here too it’s easy to reduce healing to recovery. Some conditions may be life-long or life-ending. A virus might remain with us for our lifetimes or a disease might end our life prematurely. What does healing mean for those of who do not recover to the apparent fit-ness of a past state? What does healing mean for those who may never recover?
Another biblical word for healing helps us here. Sozo - to heal or save or bring to safety. This word is used in the New Testament for physical healing but also for ultimate healing, our salvation. We are reminded that earthly healing is only one part of the story of our ultimate healing, of our ultimately be brought to the safety of our heavenly home. This healing, this salvation may entail the recovery of fullness of earthly health, or it may not.
Healing is as much about learning to recognise the fullness of the humanity of those with life-long conditions or those unable to recover, as it is about the physical “healing” enjoyed by those of us lucky enough to be able to recover well or to have access to the treatment and the medicines that make earthly recovery possible. True healing is about the restoration of relationship, the recognition of humanity, the refusal to idolise the fit and seemingly healthy whilst ignoring or being embarrassed by the seemingly unwell. True healing entails the end of exploitation of our fellow human beings and our shared home.
But, as our New Testament reading reminded us, all of these forms of healing, for whatever motive they are undertaken are transcended by the ultimate healing, the ultimate salvation which is at the heart of the Christian Gospel.
This healing, this salvation is not just a return or a recovery or even a restoration. This salvation is no escape from the reality of hardship or suffering or death. This salvation - as the events of Holy Week for which we are preparing in this season of Lent remind us - is the sure and certain promise of our salvation in Christ, who suffers death upon the Cross for our salvation and rises again to the new and eternal life of easter.
Ultimate healing, salvation, is not return, recovery or even restoration.
Ultimate healing is Resurrection. As Christians we are called to play our part in the healing of our world and of each other so that all of us may know and begin to experience even now the ultimate healing of the Risen Christ.
As followers of that Risen One we play our part in healing lives and livelihoods, in restoring habitats and responding to climate change, in recognising the full humanity of the marginalised and the overlooked. And we share the good news of this ultimate healing Christ with those three little words which which we cannot wait to say at easter. Not so much ‘nature is healing’, but ‘Christ is Risen’.
Lent 2 2020 Fr Michael Fuller
Imagine the scene. You are one of the group of Galileans who have been singled out to follow the most compelling teacher ever to walk the stony hills of your land.
You have been with your beloved leader, the one you call Master or Rabbi, for nearly three years now, and increasingly, you watch as more people come to hear him, entranced by his message about God as a loving father, people longing to be fed, some with words of comfort and many of them literally.
Then there are those miserable ones who are sick or blind, who take up his time, but he gives it freely, healing them and giving then sight in the process.
But you, you are not one of the crowds, you are the one who just recently has had his name changed from Simon to Peter. You are Petros, the rock, the stone chosen and cut and named by your beloved Master. You declared the conviction of your heart to him when he asked that stirring question: “Who do you say that I am?” And you, Simon the fisherman, you were the one with the proper answer. “You are the Messiah.”
So now that all of us have imagined the scene and have, somehow, identified with Peter at his triumphant moment of revelation and stunning declaration, let us move with him to the scene that follows.
Already, halfway into Mark’s Gospel, we are entering the second part that concentrates on Jesus’ passion. In today’s passage, we are given the first prediction of suffering and death in Mark’s singular style of brevity and immediacy. “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed . . .”
“What? Did he say killed?” The disciples forget all their distractions and preoccupations, look at each other stunned, fail to hear the end of the prediction, and then turn to Peter because Jesus seems removed, deep in thought—probably in prayer, they think, for he seems to be always connected to Someone else, always praying. And Peter takes charge again. This simply will not do. No one had ever spoken of the Messiah as having to suffer. After all, the word Messiah, Anointed, is a triumphant word. He grasps Jesus by the arm to move him a bit away from the others, and Jesus allows this, listens to him as Peter rebukes him. What is Peter saying? What does the word rebuke mean? Something like this, perhaps: “How can you speak of suffering and death? Didn’t we agree just the other day that you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God? and you did not dispute it when I declared it to you. Why are you frightening us? Look at all the crowds following you.”
Jesus does not answer him immediately. He pulls away from Peter and turns to look at his disciples, these people he has loved and taught for so many months, the ones on whom he has pinned his hopes that the vision of the kingdom that has set him on fire will do the same for them and that they will continue his mission.
He sees that they are stunned and frightened, but mostly confused. He knows that he has the power to change his own course and to comfort them.
He remembers those forty days in the wilderness that we heard about last week, Satan tempting him with power. Jesus addresses Peter, but his eyes are on all his faithful disciples, for they all matter.
If they don’t understand, no one will. “Get behind me, Satan!” he cries out again as he did in the wilderness, directly to Peter, reversing what he had told him in their previous encounter.
Now his meaning is just as clear: “Peter, you are thinking of all this in human terms. You are thinking of human power and armies and wealth, and even of violence. But the ways of God are different. Don’t you know this? Haven’t I spoken to you about God’s kingdom?”
He sees Peter’s anger and then confusion and immediately his great sadness. And he knows that his dear disciple will go through much agony of spirit and grief before he understands. Now he must teach all of them once again, he must make them understand the values of the kingdom.
His first words are terrible. Do you want to follow me? It will not be easy. I am not promising you power or wealth or importance. First, you recognize that God is the centre of your existence, not you, yourself. “Take up your cross,” he tells them, “and follow me.” In our days, this command is used profanely. “I too have my cross to bear,” someone says of a simple annoyance, and we who have been confronted by the gospel ought to cringe.
But in that day, Jesus’ listeners knew what the sentence meant in all its horror. The condemned had to carry their own means of the most horrid death to their crucifixion.
This was an awful saying to the ears who first heard it. They knew the reality of Roman cruelty.
Later they would come to recognize their teacher’s words more fully: “If you can recognize your own self-centeredness and then discard it, you may follow me. If you understand that the life, I call you to lead may cause your own death, you may follow me.”
They quickly learned what we are invited to learn every day. The life we are called to live as Christ-followers is filled with paradox. We gain by losing. We are saved by dying to self. The first become last. The last, the despised, become first.
This is no happiness, Jesus saves and it’s all OK, gospel. This is no prosperity gospel. We are not called to make millions while others go hungry. We are not called to live in mansions when others have nowhere to lay their heads.
The gospel of Christ is not casual. It is not reserved for those who say the right words while their lives speak of prestige and power.
The beautiful psalm appointed for today was composed by someone who understood this kind of justice that lives in the heart of the Creator.
“For he does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty. neither does he hide his face from them; but when they cry to him he hears them.”
It may not seem that way in this unequal and unjust society of ours.
In times of distress, we ask: “Does God not hear us?”
And then we remember Gethsemane and Christ’s tears and sweat, and then, the terrible silence. Yet, he did pick up his own cross and obeyed.
The Old Testament Lesson and St. Paul speak of faith and covenants and promises fulfilled because of Abraham’s trust in God. Jesus’ trust in God brought him to the cross. It is the only way we have for understanding what he means when he warns us of the cost of following him. And yet, who would not want to follow him? As Peter said when inspired by the Holy Spirit, “You, Lord, you alone have the words of life eternal.”
Lent 1 Fr Michael Fuller
Mark’s story of the temptation in the desert is fast moving and concise. After Jesus’ grace-filled experience at the River Jordan where he heard God call him beloved, and the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove, things take a quick turn in another direction. Mark says, “the Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness.” It’s as if the Spirit morphs from a sweet dove into a . . . pecking, beating bird nightmare that sends Jesus fleeing into the desert. This isn’t the dove on your Christmas tree. It’s like Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Birds’ with Jesus in the place of Tippi Hedren. Wrestling demons in the desert for 40 days wasn’t Jesus’ idea. In fact, he was against it. And the experience probably did not change his mind. He went on to author the prayer, “Lead us not into temptation” – in other words, let’s not do that again. Since Jesus’ time in the desert corresponds to our observance of Lent, we may take comfort in noting that he wasn’t thrilled about the idea himself. The problem is we want a nice comfortable Lent. We like a nice Lent book or a discussion group where we can shine. It has to be a happy time, in spite of its penitential emphasis In a progressive church I know, when it was permitted, on Ash Wednesday, the priest imposed the ashes with one hand, then immediately washed them off with the other, to remind the people they live in the resurrection. She reduced our reflection on sin and death to about 3 seconds, and rushes back to the happy thoughts. I once heard a priest say that rather than giving up anything for Lent, people should just take some quiet time enjoying God. Some of us don’t want to observe Lent. That’s ok. Jesus didn’t want to go there either. In Scripture, the desert means the place we do not want to go. But immediately after his life changing encounter with God’s love, that’s precisely where Jesus was compelled to go. A particular Buddhist teaching says, “Go to the places that scare you.” That’s what the Spirit made Jesus do, and that is what the Spirit presses us to do as well – to go to the places we would rather avoid because something essential happens there. That’s where our religion gets real. The danger in religion is that it so easily becomes escapist. It so easily becomes a flight into pleasant fantasies. That kind of religion is fragile, unstable, and undependable because reality keeps breaking in on us. Shallow optimistic religion continues to continue to pretend and then we get the shadow on the x-ray, then “something amiss” on the MRI, or our self-image as one of the good guys is marred by a moral lapse. Reality insistently intrudes on a false faith. The Holy Spirit turns on a penny from a happy feeling into reality forcing us to confront the demons. And that’s a good thing. The false faith of optimistic denial is the religion of healthy mindedness. Our religion is particularly effective at getting us through life, precisely because we are not “healthy minded” – because it acknowledges what we try to deny. We observe penitential seasons to make room for the minor key, to paint with the darker tone. That keeps our faith true enough, deep enough, rich enough to help us through all kinds of times. Our faith isn’t about living in an oasis. It’s about living in the desert with wild beasts, but that’s where we meet the ministering angels. Ours is a faith for the hard times – not a naïve promise that if we get our minds right, everything will be just fine. Observing a penitential season runs counter to our culture. Secular society and some brands of Christianity assume that it’s all about feeling good all the time. Much so-called “spirituality” tries to insulate us from pain. Meditation is abridged to relaxation exercises. Contemplation is pretending we are in a pleasant place. Prayer is an incantation to drive away our hardships or an opportunity to impress or inform God; and faith is reduced to positive thinking. Today’s lesson teaches us a very different spirituality. We might define spirituality as “a fundamental willingness to face what is real” – including the realities of pain and injustice. Archbishop Rowan Williams says, “the Spirit connects us to reality in a way that bridges the gulf between suffering and hope, confronting suffering without illusion, but also without despair.” To anesthetize ourselves against one is to anesthetize ourselves against the other. “No cross, no crown,” Charles Hadley Spurgeon used to say. We might say, “No Lent, no Easter.” Our brand of spirituality dares to see things straight on, to face the joy and the sorrow alike, to acknowledge our failings and celebrate God’s love. Lent is the time of the desert. We go there because God is present in every situation. When we are in the desert with the ravenous beasts, the ministering angels will be there too. So, I invite you to the observance of a holy Lent. I invite you to a deeper awareness of life. I invite you to a quiet confidence that God is with you - always there to strengthen and sustain you - always there to love, forgive, empower, or console - always at your side.
Ash Wednesday 2021 - Fr Michael Fuller I had only been in St Cyp’s a few weeks when a neighbouring priest invited me to lunch. We went to a little pizza place in Lisson Grove, it's still there and I recommend it. I was, as per usual, wearing a clergy shirt and collar. Finishing lunch we went up to the desk to pay and the cashier looked at me and said, “Oh! Are you Fr. Michael?” I have to say that the warnings Jesus gives in today’s Gospel were not the first things that came to mind. I thought to myself, “Gosh! You’ve only been here a few weeks and already people have heard of you and are excited to meet you.” I couldn’t help but notice what sounded to me like a tone of approval in the woman’s voice and I imagined the kind words she might say. So I reached out my hand and said, “Yes, I am.” The priest with me said, “No you’re not.” Then he looked at the woman and said, “No, that’s not Fr. Michael.” As we walked out of the restaurant he said to me, “She meant Fr. Michael the Roman Catholic priest. Everyone knows and loves him.” I think what happened to me that day at lunch is exactly what Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel. Today’s gospel isn’t as much about piety, almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, as it is the motivation behind those things: our need and desire to be seen, praised, and recognized by others: the temptation to value the rewards of others over the rewards of God: and the ways in which we over invest ourselves in the illusion of what others can give us. That’s not only about practices of piety, it’s also about how we live our life. It’s a question of finding ourselves. As life events go, my lunchtime lesson probably wasn’t that big of a deal but as I look back on it, I can see how I had given my heart to another’s opinions, praise, and approval. And it didn’t much matter whether those things were real or imagined. I was looking for myself in what others thought and said about me. I was looking for myself outside of myself. I was looking for myself through the eyes of others rather than through the eyes of God. I had stepped outside of that hidden and secret place within each of us where the Father sees and rewards. St. Augustine says it like this: “You [speaking of God] were within me and I was outside of myself, and I searched for you in that exterior world” (Confessions X, 27). Have you ever had that nagging sense that you just aren’t enough? Have you ever spent time comparing yourself to and competing with others? Have you ever spoken or acted in a particular way to get someone’s approval? Have you ridden the rollercoaster of someone else’s opinion about you? How much is your worth or value tied to what others say or think about you? Have you ever tried to prove yourself by working harder and longer? Do you sometimes keep score of your life, adjusting the bottom line according to the number and size of your successes and failures? If you recognize any of those things in your life then you probably know what it’s like to search in the exterior world. In some way, those things, and a thousand others just like them, are symptoms of the human condition. They reveal legitimate and authentic needs and desires. They reveal our desire to be seen, valued, and loved; and our need to be accepted, included, and part of a community. In a strange, sort of misguided way they reveal our longing for the holy, the transcendent, for something outside of and beyond ourselves that we cannot give to or do for ourselves. They also, however, disclose what we treasure and to what or whom we have given our hearts. They are the symptoms of having lost ourselves. Searching in the exterior world is risky business because sometimes you find out you are not who you thought you were. “No, that’s not Fr. Michael,” they said. But I really wanted it to be. I wanted the recognition, praise, and approval. As painful as those experiences might be, they are filled with grace. It is the opportunity to discover that who we are in God – and not in the eyes, opinions, praises, or approval of another – is who we most truly are. It’s a first step in our journey home. Lent is not the journey from bad to good, or sinner to saint. It’s the journey of coming to ourselves and returning home. So we need to be careful that the very things we give up, take on, or do for Lent don’t become our Lenten treasures to which we give our hearts. Let’s not forget that our practices and disciplines are about teaching and helping us to give our hearts to God and to each other. They are not the means of gaining God’s acceptance, approval, or love. So let me ask you this. What are your treasures? To what or whom have your given your heart? Where has your searching in the exterior world taken you? Don’t be afraid to reflect on and answer those questions. I am convinced that there is no right or wrong answer to those questions. There are, however, truthful and less than truthful answers, honest and less than honest answers, answers that keep us stuck and answers that can free us to move forward. Where we begin our Lenten journey is not as important as where it takes us. In the same way, what we give up, take on, or do for Lent are not as important as what those things do for us. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Quinquagesima 2021 - Fr Michael Fuller I was watching some really bad television programme during the week, when the presenter used a word that previously I loathed, he used it over thirty times, I counted, the word was WOW! Wow times, for me, are when you see something incredibly beautiful or wonderful, or something happens to you, something that stops you in your tracks, something that makes you realise how wonderful the world is, how we are all connected, or how close God is - something like that? They are not about a contestant who is able to count to ten! It got me thinking about some of my recent WOW moments: Going, 18 months ago whilst on holiday in Columbia, to a Cathedral, hewn, hundreds of feet below ground, out of a salt mine! So beautiful! Going into the chapel at the monastery where I was staying overnight before the first lockdown, where you could feel the holiness – there in the centre of the chapel they had the Blessed Sacrament exposed. It was a wonderful place to go and pray. These things happen, and praise God that they do. For me, they are connected with my experience of God, but I guess that anyone could have these kinds of experiences. I suspect they are more likely to happen if you are open to the presence of the Spirit of God, if you pray and look for the ways in which God is acting in the world and the ways in which God comes alongside us in our lives. Sometimes, God breaks in. Sometimes, heaven comes close. Sometimes, the veil between heaven and earth is very thin. You hear people talking about "thin places" -that's where the veil between heaven and earth are thin, places that help you feel that God is nearby. In the Bible, mountains are special places, places where people meet God. Moses met God on Mount Sinai and brought back the Ten Commandments, and Elisha experienced the still small voice of God on Mount Carmel and he heard God's plans for the world. God establishes Mount Zion as the place where God would dwell and where people could worship God. So how would you feel if you walked up a mountain with a group of friends, and when you collapsed in a heap at the top, you suddenly noticed that one of your friends had become a glowing light? This is what happened to Peter, John and James. Their friend Jesus turned white with light, and there were two people with him in the light, Moses and Elisha. We already know that they are special mountain people. It was a truly extraordinary WOW moment. WOW moments change things. They make you see the world differently. They might help you make a decision about the future or make a new commitment. They strengthen you inside. You may wonder if I’m not now completely off my head speaking of transfiguration during a pandemic when so many have lost loved ones, lost jobs, livelihoods and homes or are stressed beyond words. What WOW moment are not, is a promise that everything is going to be brilliant from now on. It was quite the opposite for Jesus. After this strange experience, Jesus has a new purpose. Jesus is heading for Jerusalem, moving towards his suffering and death on the cross. And Jesus knows there is trouble ahead. WOW moments are not about God's comfort. So if you're thinking, ‘I wish I could have an experience like that’, be careful what you ask for. WOW moments are wonderful, but they also demand something of you. When they happen, they are a gift from God, so give thanks for them, but be ready, because God may have something for you to do. I have at home a postcard of a painting, which shows three old priests walking along in the greenish gloom holding umbrellas. Up in the sky there are angels dancing in light, and the priests don't see them, because their attention is firmly on the ground. Sometimes we don't see the vision of angels or heaven or God's presence because our attention is somewhere else. If we are too busy with this world, perhaps we will miss seeing the other world break through. And then we would miss both the vision and the call to serve. Stop being stubborn, self-absorbed and downcast! Look up to the light. If you would like to be more open to the possibility of seeing God's glory, then I would simply and sincerely encourage you to converse with God and to read your bibles. Spend time with God and God will spend time with you. Ask God each morning to open your eyes to God’s presence. Look out for God in the world around you and in the people you meet. And each night, thank God for all that you have received. Love God a little more and you will be more open to God's love. Then one day, when you are least expecting it, suddenly you will notice that God is truly present or that the angels are praising God and inviting you to sing along as they sing ‘Shine, Jesus, Shine’. These things happen. They are one of the joys of faith. You can't make them happen. If you look too hard, you will miss them entirely. They are not the be-all-and-end-all-of-faith. That is God alone. It's like looking for love - a salutary reminder on this Valentine’s Day - you don't find it by looking for it; you find it by giving yourself to the other. Turn to God; keep turning to God. Make room for joy and laughter. Don’t think less of yourself, but think of yourself less And then, who knows? On the mountain, the light shone in and through Jesus. He shines for us. Over the next few weeks, we will walk with Jesus on the journey to the cross. Let his light shine for you as you get to know Jesus a little better in the season of Lent. This journey goes towards suffering and death, but beyond that there is another light, and we will see the light of the Risen Christ. Have a good Lent and a holy Lent and be ready for anything. Be prepared, my friends to be bowled over God’s by WOW factor.
The Feast of Presentation 2021 - Fr Michael Fuller
This week I have been thinking about what I might have felt were defining moments in my life. Those moments that caused me to say if I’d lived only for this moment, it would have been enough…I’d be ready to depart…this moment has shown me how wonderful, how significant, how poignant life is”.
I wonder what those moments have been for you? Perhaps this might be a topic for discussion after Mass?
On this Feast of the Presentation of Christ we catch a glimpse of one such moment – in the life of Simeon. A devout and holy man, Simeon was in the Temple when the infant Jesus was brought by his parents to be presented to God.
In that moment, on that day, Simeon took the baby in his arms and recognised him as ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of God’s people, Israel’.
A moment which revealed the depth and significance of everything – not just for Simeon but for the world.
Simeon, like Anna, had been watching, praying and waiting, hidden from sight; but on that day, they stepped out from the hiding darkness into the spotlight, with a message of astounding hope.
That in this baby the fullness of eternity focused into one location in time and space…God at last appears in his temple…not as overlord, destroyer or dictator but carried in the arms of humanity, a vulnerable pilgrim, like every other pilgrim there that day, like anyone of us.
God made small, revealed to the small people. Presented and made present.
Simeon declared that the light to the nations has come…and his words give rise to the other name for this feast of the presentation: Candlemas.
There is something fluid and alive about a candle flame which sets it apart from other sources of light. Dependent on the air around it, it grows bigger or fades according to the availability of fuel, of oxygen … it is vulnerable, at the mercy of violence which can so easily snuff it out.
The candle flame is then a fitting symbol for the people we find in the Temple that day…Joseph, Mary, the humble parents, Simeon and Anna. The anawim. (Ana-a-weem) God’s humble poor.
Yet it is they, the small people, who hold the light in their hands.
It is they, who recognise how much the world needs this light and it is they who, even in the darkness, raise up voices of hope, because they see the impact this child will have on the darkness.
A candle is also a fitting symbol for the Christ-child presented in the temple that day… vulnerable, so easily extinguished by violence, giving light though being consumed.
The light has come but it will not be without cost, it never is, for the calling to be and to carry the light requires a willingness to embrace the darkness.
And there in the temple, all those years before the deep darkness would fall around this child, as he hung on a Roman Cross, Simeon warned Mary of the pain that was to come; of the darkness which would fall as a sword which would pierce her soul and a spear that would pierce her son’s side.
The darkness is not easily beaten back...and over the next 30 or so years what was to play out in the life and ministry of Christ was this drama of light and darkness.
For us light and darkness mingle too…in this Pandemic, in the violence of the world around us, even in the Church.
And here with the gladness of a strange Christmas still fresh in our souls, we very soon turn from contemplating the crib to considering the cross.
And in our lives, in our world, light and dark mingle still.
And still Christ offers himself to be consumed as the darkness is held at bay.
Light is in any case always seen more clearly against the darkness. Just as love is seen even more clearly against hate. ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it’.
And we are sent to carry it with us, to carry it out from our computer screens…and when we cannot carry it for ourselves, we need one another to carry the light for us.
We are invited to be bearers of this light…but not without the same cost that fell to him
Pope Paul VI observed: ‘Christ says ‘I am the light of the world’ And we are the light…if we receive it from him… But how do we make it shine? The candle tells us; by burning and being consumed in the burning’.
It’s time for us to pray to be bearers of the Light and to act as if we are
Epiphany 3 - Fr Simon Cuff Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunder-peals, crying out ‘Hallelujah!For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.’ Words from the Revelation of St John, the 19th chapter, the 6th verse. May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I stumbled upon some writings of our patron, St Cyprian this week. It was on the feast day of St Fabian, St Cyprian writing to the priests and deacons of Rome upon hearing of the death of Pope Fabian. In my mind, St Cyprian is always quite a fierce character. The most famous saying attributed to him is ‘no salvation outside the catholic church’, which always feels slightly awkward post-reformation for us as Anglicans, especially in this week of prayer for Christian unity.
Nevertheless, in these letters, St Cyprian seemed to show a more pastoral side, commending the generosity and pastoral care toward Christians in the course of persecution.
There have been lots of debates recently about the role of the Church in a pandemic. Lots of what has been written is unedifying and does little to build up the body of Christ. In St Cyprian’s time the Church was commending the provision of generous pastoral care in the course of a period of persecution. Likewise in our day, the Church has not stopped providing pastoral care even when physical gathering for worship has been suspended or deemed unwise as we try to work together to keep rates of infection low in our community.
Worship continues even though we cannot meet. The provision of pastoral care continues throughout our parish and in every church community.
In this week of prayer too we remember that whilst we might be prevented because of our differences from worshipping fully together, often we can find closer unity in our shared provision of pastoral care.
Provision is a key theme of our readings this morning. In our first reading, Melchizedek praises his God for his provision in the face of the enemies of the people of God. In our reading from revelation, the abundance of God’s provision of salvation is made clear, the roar of the great multitude invited to share in the banquet of salvation.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus provides for those at the wedding feast as the wine runs dry - not a problem I think we’ve ever faced at St Cyprians. Jesus not only meets their need, he surpasses it. ‘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.’
Our provision of care toward one another does not have to be quite as lavish as Jesus’ six stone jars of the finest vintage. We can provide for each other in small ways - a phone call to someone who might need cheering up, a letter or a postcard, asking if there’s anything they might need next time you shop.
So too our provision toward each other in church need not be lavish, but generous. Making an effort to appreciate the ministry of those involved in our service - a singer or a reader. Discerning whether you can give a little more each week to sustain our ministry costs. This provision too need not be lavish but generous. If each of us gave an extra £3.75 a week we would be able to pay our way as a parish. For the cost of many monthly mobile phone plans we could be on the way to a more sustainable pattern of ministry.
Provision is not only all the things we do for each other here in Church - our giving, our worship, our pastoral care. Provision is first and foremost a gift from God. All that we are, all that we have, all that we will be given is of God. ‘Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father’ as we read in the letter of James.
As we celebrate our Spiritual Communion together this morning we give thanks to God for all that he is provided us, for the provision of pastoral care we find in this place, and we ask for the grace to see how we too can share our provision with others.
And we thank God for the provision on which our entire life in Christ is built. The gift of Christ himself, given to us now in our spiritual communion at home and in bread and wine on this altar. As Christ provides himself for us wherever we are, how are we providing for others? How are we sharing what we have been given for the sake of others?
Epiphany 2 - Fr Michael Fuller
John 1:35 ‘What do you want?’ ‘Where do you live?’ ‘Come and see!’ These are issues posed to Jesus in today’s Gospel reading.
Thus begins the relationship of Andrew and the other disciple with the one who was to become their Master and Teacher, the one who was already their Messiah and Lord.
Thus begins the life of faith in each of us.
Yet the questions do not look like they are questions about faith at all. ‘Where do you live?’ that’s the sort of thing any of us might say as an ice-breaker the first time we meet someone. ‘What do you want?’ is, by contrast, a question that life asks us: a question about the meaning of our existence, our aims and plans, our hopes and dreams.
And, although there are plenty of voices constantly telling us what we should want (in order to be good consumers, good citizens and good company), ‘What do you want?’ is a question which ultimately we have to answer for ourselves, if we wish to live as mature and responsible human beings.
What do we want post-Covid-19? Can we dream big? Can we hope large? Can we ‘recover and be better’?
Well, the Christian faith says that the answer to our deepest desires (including the answer to our desires for our society) is to be found in Christ Jesus. The Word was made flesh; he dwelt among us (or, more literally, he ‘set up his tent among us’ John tells us); and in that way the sacred became secular, the divine became human.
That’s what we celebrated (with all the limitations imposed by Covid-19) just a few weeks ago at Christmas.
As a consequence, if (like the first disciples) we find ourselves asking Jesus: ‘Where do you live?’ the answer is: ‘With you!’ Wherever humanity is; especially wherever struggling, hurting, broken humanity is.
Ask yourself: ‘What do I want?’ and I guess our response will centre on those most basic things: food, shelter, warmth, security, a sense of belonging. What does anyone want?
The assurance that we matter; that we are not alone; that we will not be abandoned; that we are respected for who we are and not for our utility or our achievements; that there is hope; freedom from anxiety and the freedom to live in peace.
Yet there are so many who lack hope, who have been robbed of self-respect, who live in isolation, who are overlooked and disregarded.
Not only individuals but our culture and our planet all stand in need of healing. Pope Francis asked us recently us to affirm this truth: that ‘a culture of care is the path to peace’. In the face of what he famously called ‘the globalisation of indifference’, we need to reaffirm the truth that Christ lives where we are; that we shall meet him in the hungry and the thirsty, the naked and the sick and the imprisoned – in other words, in people who may look far from ‘Christ-like’ (which is how he promised he would meet us in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats).
Only by acts of care will we recognise Jesus. Only by lives of service shall we meet Jesus – crucified, yes; but also risen, the source of new life.
Only by going out to the places where he went, among the sinners and tax-collectors, the lepers and outcasts, with Christ-like actions of compassion, shall we truly hear his voice:
The voice that spoke the Beatitudes; the voice that commanded us to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us; the voice that refused to hate his own persecutors and thus broke the endless cycle of violence: ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing!’
A culture of care does not stop at nice words and the gentle mopping of fevered brows, important though these be.
A culture of care refuses to treat another human being as a disposable means to an end.
A culture of care refuses to harden our hearts, reducing our opponents to caricatures who may be hated with impunity: even when estranged, they remain our brothers and sisters.
A culture of care refuses to accept that warfare (or the preparation for warfare – disturbingly, now that Britain is the second largest arms exporter in the world) is an ethically acceptable response to the undoubted injustices in our world.
Pope Francis in a recent encyclical put it plainly: ‘We can no longer think of war as a solution because its risks will always be greater than its supposed benefits … Never again war!’
What do we want? Food and shelter, warmth and belonging, for all God’s children.
Where does Christ live?
Right here in our struggles, our wounds and our hopes, and in the groaning of our planet under our onslaught on its natural resources. ‘Come and see!’ says Jesus.
My friends, let us follow Jesus. Let us dedicate ourselves to working together to build a world in which all belong, none are excluded and the rights of each and every person are respected.
Together, let us build a culture of care.
The Baptism of Christ - Epiphany 1 Fr Simon Cuff A voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ Words from the Gospel according to St Matthew, the 3rd chapter, the 17th verse. May I speak in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today’s feast is a feast of revelation, of manifestation, of Epiphany. Traditionally, the Baptism of Christ we celebrate today was seen as occurring on the same day in the calendar as two other events of revelation and manifestation: the visit of the Magi, which we more readily associate with ‘epiphany’ and celebrated last week, and Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding at Cana, turning water into wine.
It’s possible to preach a theological sermon about today’s feast. What’s going on? Why does Jesus need to be baptised? What do the waters do to him - or, rather, what does he do to the waters - setting them aside for the baptism of each and every Christian. It’s possible to preach such a theological sermon, but this isn’t the sermon I’m going to try to preach today.
Revelation, manifestation, epiphany. What does it mean for us to see the Baptism of Christ as a moment of revelation even as we celebrate this feast in the context of a pandemic which doesn’t seem intent on ending? How can we see God manifesting God's self during this Baptism whilst we might be struggling to see God manifesting God's self in the events which surround us? How do we see this feast as an epiphany as we long for our own epiphany in the midst of never-ending uncertainty?
In our Gospel reading, there is an obvious moment of revelation. A voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ Revelation here is dramatic and interventionist. God speaks. The world hears.
But this isn’t the only moment of revelation in our passage, but we might all too easily overlook them. God reveals God's self in the dramatic voice speaking over the one baptised.
God reveals God's self too in the one baptised. Jesus is God’s revelation of God's self to us as of one us. God is revealing God's self even before the voice from heaven as God reveals God's self to us in Christ.
But this isn’t the only other moment of revelation in this passage. Sometimes God reveals God's self in places we least expect, and can all too easily to overlook. Even in John the Baptist’s interruption, God is revealing God's self. God uses John the Baptist’s objection as an opportunity for revelation: ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’. We learn something about who Christ is through John’s underlining of the difference between them.
Sometimes God reveals God's self in places we least expect, and can all too easily to overlook. We come to Church because we’ve learned that God reveals God's self to us here in this building, when we pray together as his Church. He speaks to us in Scripture, he comes close to us in song, he offers God's self to us in bread and wine.
God reveals God's self in less obvious places too: through our time spent with each other, through the fellowship we enjoy and the conversation we share after Mass.
Sometimes God reveals God's self in places we least expect, and can all too easily to overlook. Sometimes God is revealing God’s self to us in ways that require us to be observant, pay attention, to look again in those places we’ve looked a hundred times before.
For our safety, we’ve been asked to stay home. We’ve taken the decision as a church at least for the immediate future that we should play our part in keeping ourselves and our community safe by moving our worship online. We’re keeping ourselves away from the church building, a place we know that God reveals God’s self to us. Our fellowship with each other has become virtual, it’s more difficult to hear God speaking to us through others in casual conversation or outside of Zoom or telephone calls.
Now, we’re confined to our homes. Places we’ve been hundreds of times before, in places we’ve spent what feel like hundreds of days this year already. God is revealing God’s self to us even here - as much in our homes - as in the baptism of Christ we celebrate today. God is revealing God’s self to us as much in our homes, as in the voice from heaven, or in Christ in the Jordan, or in the interruption of John.
This period of lockdown. This, we hope and pray, last period of lockdown presents us with an opportunity as the very many challenges it poses too. In this period of confinement, we are invited once again to encounter God afresh in our everyday lives - in our simple prayers, in our morning and evening prayer on Zoom, in our online worship, in the online social provision we can muster. We are invited in this challenging time to discover God’s revelation to us, God’s manifestation, God’s epiphany in our home lives as much as our church lives. To hear God’s voice speaking to us in places we’ve overlooked or taken for granted, in the interruptions we’re called upon to endure, or in those dazzling moments of revelation we might otherwise have missed.
Wherever we are, may we have ears to hear the very many ways God reveals God’s self to us, the many ways God is seeking to speak to us again and again and reveal God’s to us in God’s Son - at church, at home, in the whole of our Christian lives.
The Feast of Epiphany - Fr Michael Fuller
In the run up to Christmas I reread the play Murder in the Cathedral, it’s a great read and I commend it to you. Since Christmas Day I have attempted to come to terms with TS Eliot’s poem, The Journey of the Magi. I say come to terms because I’ve always felt that Eliot plagiarised it. It is based on a tremendous sermon by Lancelot Andrewes that King James I heard on Christmas Day 1622, they were brilliantly stolen by TS Eliot and incorporated into his poem. And we can see it all: the camels’ breath steaming in the night air as the kings, in their gorgeous robes of silk and cloth-of-gold and clutching their precious gifts, kneel to adore the baby in the manger. “Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem where ‘he who has been born king of the Jews’. We have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him.” So Matthew, alone among the Gospel writers, records that extraordinary visit of the wise men, which we celebrate today. Epiphany. Ever since I was little, I have been fascinated by this story. The thought of the strange, Oriental figures following a star. I have often wondered what it is that caused these men, to leave their homes and go on this dangerous journey into a strange land. T.S. Eliot in the Journey of Magi imagines how difficult the journey must have been: “A cold coming we had of it. Just the worst time of the year for such a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the very dead of winter.” He imagines they must have thought of turning back: “There were times we regretted the summer palaces or slopes, the terraces and the silken girls bringing sherbert.” Yet, Matthew tells us, they persevered and reached their goal. They came to Jesus and bowed down and worshiped him. And then he says, “they departed to their country by another way.” Back to the summer palaces, the silken girls and sherbert? Yet how could they ever be the same again – for they had seen the Christ and they had believed. Eliot, at the end of his poem writes, “we returned to our palaces, these kingdoms, but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.” God had broken into their comfortable lives and profoundly disturbed them. They had known they had to leave everything behind and follow that star. And so, the Bible and the whole history of the Church is a continual story of this God breaking into people’s lives, disturbing them. Look, for example at S Paul, he says smugly, ‘I am quite happy thank you very much – I’m proud that I was circumcised on the 8th day, of the people of Israel , of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, a pharisee, a zealous persecutor of the church – as to righteousness under the Law I am blameless. But God found a chink in his armour of pride and self-reliance – and he broke through – so bright was Paul’s Epiphany that he was blinded by it. And for the rest of his life he suffered because of it. He left all his security behind and followed his Lord into a world of risk, uncertainty, suffering, beatings, shipwrecks, imprisonment and death. Yet, he says in the Letters to the Philippians, everything I had before – status, wealth, education – I count as worthless because of the surpassing worth of having Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of everything – but I consider all that as rubbish if only I can have Christ. History is strewn with such people: St. Anthony of Egypt, St. Francis of Assisi , St. Benedict, St Theresa of Calcutta and maybe some of you here: all who were living a comfortable, untroubled existence, until they experienced the Epiphany of God in their lives. And, like the first disciples, they left everything and followed Christ. They weren’t masochists, somehow punishing themselves, as some kind of penance – they changed their lives because they’d seen something better. They had glimpsed something or someone so wonderful that everything which had seemed so important to them before was no longer important. In that wonderful Chapter 11 of The Letter to the Hebrews, the writer describes the same thing with all the great figures of the Old Testament, from Abraham onwards, who obeyed God’s call, and left behind their old existence and country because of the things promised by God. What about us? Have we had experiences of God which have broken into our lives: Moments of transcendence and meaning for us. They can be very disturbing. They can start making us feel guilty, or uneasy – make us ask difficult questions about our way of life. For some people, such experiences of God so threaten their lives that they refuse to listen or respond and as one poet put it “they seal up their souls.” Yet God will not allow us to live our lives on the purely materialistic level – God will carry on disturbing us, challenging us, making us feel uneasy, making us long for a homeland beyond the familiar. Think along the lines of Francis Thompson’s Hound of Heaven We do not realise our own greatness: there is something infinite in us, but we constantly immerse ourselves in being submerged by the finite.” In Eliot’s poem, when the wise men return to their land, changed by the encounter with God, they say “We returned to our palaces, but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with other people clutching their gods.” Those wise men had seen something so great that they were changed, no longer completely at home – and to return home and see those people clutching their gods – no, they must have felt –they aren’t going to help you – they’re an illusion: you’re called to be children of God – your hope is in God, your life is hid in Christ, he is your life and your light and your salvation. When you have grasped that, you cannot return to the old ways. When God disturbs you, breaks into your life – just when everything seemed nice and comfortable – be thankful – for that is God’s Epiphany to you. It is the source of our greatness and our dignity as children of God, that God won’t let us be comfortable with the familiar, the materialistic. We have here no abiding city. But we seek a city that is to come. We are on a pilgrimage, a journey towards God. My prayer for us in 2021, apart for an end to this pandemic, is that God will come to us and challenge us and disturb us, but only that is done to us so that we may become more the person that God wants us to be – because then, and only then, will we know the answers to our longings – the peace of God which passes all understanding.
Feast of St John the Evangelist December 27th, 2020. Sermon by Fr Michael Fuller.
If you read the New Testament in order, which I don’t necessarily recommend, you munch your way through Matthew, Mark, and Luke before arriving at John and then reading John’s account of Jesus’ life it feels rather different.
Here is metaphor, here is symbolism of a different order: talking about a different order, the events of Jesus’ life are presented that way as well - many of them in completely different chronological arrangement to the previous three Gospels.
We all know how St John’s Gospel begins, I’m sure. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God: he was in the beginning with God"... and so on.
Verses and verses of dense, complicated, beautiful, but very, very difficult theological language. A risky business starting off a book that way.
But John wants to front-end his gospel if you like with a big statement about the nature of the person of Jesus Christ.
He wants to say, "everything that is coming, everything that I’m going to say about this person" - because of course there is no Christmas, there is no childhood narrated in John’s Gospel - "everything about this person matters because of who and what he is: the Word of God".
This is why everything else matters. This is why everything else works. This is why Christmas is important: and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen his glory.
That’s why what’s depicted over there in the manger scene matters to John, even if he doesn’t narrate it like that, because what you see there in the baby amidst the straw, wrapped in swaddling clothes and surrounded by his parents and gawping shepherds, is the Word made flesh.
What John is saying is, when you look at that baby, you see what God is like. You see what God is like, and so when you trace the story of this baby from the manger to the cross and beyond, you see God’s life. You see what a perfect human life would look like, because you see God living one.
And this kind of stuff comes up over and over again in John’s Gospel, so that at the very end of the gospel which we heard this morning, two days after hearing the very beginning read in church, it’s still pretty dense, it’s still pretty complicated.
We hear the story of Peter and John himself, who of course only gets referred to as “the one whom Jesus loved” at this point, and this rather convoluted conversation between Jesus and Peter about what John’s fate will be.
And the gospel ends with either overstatement or the literal truth but either way in an ecstatically beautiful way, “there are also many other things that Jesus did: if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
Yesterday was the feast of Stephen. Tomorrow is the feast of the Holy Innocents, one of the most haunting feasts of the year, when we remember the slaughter of the boys aged two years old and under by Herod the Great in his attempt to eliminate all possibility of a baby growing up to challenge his rule. Sandwiched in between them is the feast of “crazy weird guy”. St John the Evangelist. And thank God for that arrangement of feasts. The three days after Christmas tell us something rather important about how it’s all supposed to work. It’s supposed to work because of who Jesus is.
The news doesn’t become cute and cuddly over Christmas time. The Pandemic doesn’t take a break. People don’t stop being deployed to war over Christmas. Burglars don’t stop robbing people’s houses, petty and greedy leaders don’t stop dominating and persecuting and abusing their people and their neighbours over Christmas.
People don’t stop dying for their Christian faith over Christmas, or their lack of it. Christmas is not, for all of the delightful cosy and candlelit traditions a time of peace. It is a time of prayer for peace.
It’s a time when if you like we re-member, in the real sense of that word, re-energise, and re-engage with the fact that the world needs to change profoundly from the way that it is.
St John helps us to do that. Sandwiched in between two feast days remembering deaths, none of them natural, all of them brutal, all of them motivated by fear, is the feast of St John reminding us not to look for God somewhere else.
Not to search for him in the heavens, or to route through the pages of ancient books to find him but recognise that the principal place in which God is found, is in a baby, and a rootless preacher, and a political prisoner, and a convicted criminal, whose footsteps spread not only the harmonies of good news, but which spread power for you and me and all people to become “children of God”.
The message of St John’s Gospel, the overwhelming message, is the message of light. It is confident assertion that where the feet of Jesus tread, there is a light which follows, and which is of a completely different order to anything else in the world. As we heard in our epistle, “this is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.”
It was the Queen, in her Christmas speech who talked about the darkness of the world. And rightly so, because if we are to make Christmas worth anything, we have to see the darkness of the world but, crucially, we have to see it in context.
In the context of the darkness of the world are those bright, shining, transfiguring footsteps of Christ. And they don’t stop shining.
You have to look pretty hard for them sometimes, because they are crowded out by greed and jealousy and hatred, people try to hide those footsteps behind piles of other stuff because those footsteps make us afraid and suspicious and they threaten to lead us where we don’t want to go, but they don’t stop shining.
Sometimes they are tiny, like the prints of a brand-new baby taking his first crawl across the floor, sometimes they’re large and confident like a man striding along the seashore in Galilee, sometimes they appear faltering like a convicted man carrying the cares of the world on his shoulders. But they never stop shining. “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.”
That is the context for the darkness of the world. Perhaps the reason why St John seems so peculiar is that he could see that quite clearly. And how would it be if the world could see itself in the context of the shining footsteps of the Prince of Peace?
How would our lives be different?
Remind the darkness of its context when you encounter it. Remind the darkness that the night around it is as bright as the day. Remind the darkness that the light has so much to say that all the books of the world have not the capacity to record it.
Christmas Day - Fr Simon Cuff And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth words from the Gospel according to St John, the 1st chapter, the 14th verse. May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is Christmas Day. Amidst all the uncertainty of the past year, there is something hugely reassuring about the liturgical year and the fact that whilst our celebrations of Christmas have been curtailed, nothing can get in the way of Christmas itself.
This has been a strange year, and my sense of time has entirely escaped me. We entered lockdown during Lent. January and February seem a lifetime away, but March and the events that it brought seem like only yesterday. It still seems that someone has pressed a huge pause button and we’re all waiting on them to press play.
Our Christmas plans were also paused last week. The usual round of parties and families and festivities remained on pause even before then. One comforting feature of recent life has been the return of the Vicar of Dibley to our screens. In a crisis, the nation still needs a vision of the Church to help process the experience.
Dawn French’s character at least reminds us that there are some upsides to celebrating Christmas during a pandemic - the chances of four Christmas dinners in a row is pretty slim - or will at least see Geraldine awarded a pretty hefty fine.
Our celebration of Christmas might seem strange, but in our self-isolation and household restriction we are perhaps closer to that first Christmas than any of us every imagined ourselves to be at this time of year.
When we look to our nativity scene and are reminded of that first Christmas we see no large gathering or festive banquet. We see a family nervous and alone, in a world that seem threatening and unsure. We see a family at risk if they venture outside, as we will remember poignantly on the feast of the Holy Innocents in a few days time. We see Mary. We see Joseph. And, in Christ, we see God in their midst. The Word was made flesh.
However we find ourselves celebrating Christmas this year, this truth is a constant - a truth that sometimes our more extravagant celebrations make it difficult to see. Today we celebrate this truth - that in Christ, God has become human. God has become one of us for our salvation. God offered himself to us in Christ, offered himself for us by pouring out his life, and offers himself to us in bread and wine. The Word was made flesh. God is in our midst.
God is in our midst today as we celebrate our Communion with him. God is in our midst however we find ourselves celebrating his birth as one of us today.
What unites our celebration of Christmas with that first Christmas is not a lavish dinner, or large family gathering, or lots of presents but that God is in our midst. God offers us to himself now, he is with us in Christ, as much today as in that first Christmas.
There is no restriction on gathering that can interrupt this truth. God is with us.
This year the ‘us’ with which we celebrate Christmas may well be smaller than we had imagined this time last year. Some of us will be prevented from gathering together because of the new restrictions limit the size of the ‘us’ with which we can celebrate. Many of us will face empty chairs belonging to friends or loved ones who are no longer with us, those who have died in a year where death has seemed all around us. Here too, God is with us.
In our celebration of his birth, God is with us. In our grief and our loss, God is with us. In our uncertainty at the days and weeks and months ahead, God is with us.
This is what we celebrate today.
During my curacy, my training incumbent used to spend most of Advent and Lent trying to persuade children more excited about the prospect of Christmas presents or Easter eggs that they should celebrate the upcoming Feast by learning to pray a simple prayer: “Come into my heart Lord Jesus, there is room in my heart for thee”.
At the time, I thought this was a rather strange tradition that failed to convince many children that they should be more excited about Jesus’s presence with them than the Christmas presents or Easter eggs they were much more interested in.
This year, however, the truth of what we celebrate today has never seemed more important a focus. As we’ve been more used to making spiritual Communions at home when we’ve been prevented for sharing Communion together, that little prayer seems to sum up everything that we need for a full and fitting celebration of the Christmas feast.
Not hundreds of presents or a table laden with food and surrounded by friends, but a heartfelt prayer and the acknowledgement of God’s presence with us that has carried us through the year: “Come into my heart Lord Jesus, there is room in my heart for thee”.
In a year where all our hearts have been stretched and often broken, we remember that Jesus is already there. God is with us, in our very midst, whatever happens, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.
This may not be the Christmas that we had imagined or to which we had been looking forward, but it may be the Christmas where the truth of what we celebrate comes home to us in a way that has escaped us before.
The truth that we celebrate today: God is with us. And there is room in our hearts, and our homes, for him.
“Come into our hearts Lord Jesus, there is room in our hearts for thee.”
Sermon at Midnight Mass 2020 by Fr Michael Fuller I don’t want to criticise the Church of England, but I am not sure that choosing ‘Comfort & Joy’ as its tag line for Christmas was the best idea. We are floundering in Brexit negotiations; we are battling to contain a global pandemic, without making firm, sensible, though difficult, decisions. We are allowing our NHS to be systematically run into the ground and the Church is banging on about, ‘Comfort and Joy’. I am reminded of those challenging words from Psalm 137, ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ How do we explain the comfort and joy of Jesus Christ in a year when things aren’t comfortable, and they definitely haven’t been joyful? One of the problems is that we have an image of Christmas — idyllic, pretty, like the front of a Christmas card. We have our expectations of an ideal holiday. Perhaps we put pressure on ourselves to make it perfect: to be brilliant hosts, buy wonderful gifts and have perfect relationships. The other problem is that a vast swathe of our people feels a sense of entitlement, they must be allowed to do what they want to! This Christmas may not look idyllic, because it is not meant to. Christmas isn’t a time for escapism, and it’s most certainly not about another world. It is about God in Jesus Christ joining this world, living in the imperfection, and sharing in our suffering. The only thing that makes Christmas perfect to my mind is Jesus. So we talk of comfort — but the birth of a baby in a stable, because there is nowhere else to go, isn’t what we would normally call comfortable. Perhaps it might be more profitable to deconstruct the tagline? It is hardly comforting for us. But the key here is the syllable ‘fort’. God comforts us by strengthening , giving strength when we feel discouraged, challenging us not to give in. That’s what God does at Christmas: he comforts us — fortifies us — by being with us. He turns our expectations of what we need on their head. We are offered not a mighty hero, but a helpless baby. God doesn’t come with riches and power, but amidst persecution and vulnerability. He doesn’t enter a perfect, finished world, God offers love and presence in the midst of brokenness. We heard from Isaiah earlier: ‘Comfort, comfort my people.’ All that God has done for us in Jesus Christ; all the pains and insults he has borne for us; all the sorrows he has carried; all that has been achieved by his death and resurrection; and all the promise that is held in his birth and coming among us is summed up in this word: comfort. We take great comfort from the proximity of others, something so many of us have gone without this year, and we have felt it keenly. But in the birth of Jesus Christ, God offers us the chance to draw closer to God. For now, there is no distance between Creator and creation. God does not watch passively from afar when we suffer. God changes the entire arc of the universe to be close to His people, to walk among us, to comfort us. So that’s comfort, but what about joy? Thinking about joy, or even being joyful, might feel a bit subversive this year. The priest and author Henri Nouwen differentiated between joy and happiness. He said that: ‘Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing, sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death, can take that love away.’ There are many things to be unhappy about — and being a Christian does not mean pretending everything is fine when it is not. One only has to look at the way that churches and other faith groups, local communities, charities and individuals have been offering help to those in need to see that our joy is deeply bound up in our willingness to enter into the suffering of others and walk with them through it: to be those who bring comfort to others through our presence. True presence requires sacrifice — time, attention, care and something that costs us. This year, the challenge of ‘comfort and joy’ holds together the hope of the world we are promised with the reality of the world in which we live. This year will be a Christmas both of celebration and consolation, of grief and — perhaps — relief at the end of a difficult year. We will have to hold together our delight at birth and our despair at death, our salvation and our sorrow. The challenge — or is it gift? — Jesus embodies is to trust the light in the darkness, the power in vulnerability, the hope amidst despair and new life amidst our human frailty. God’s help looks vulnerable but is invincible. The promise of Jesus, 2,000 years ago and today, is Emmanuel: God with us, always. May God’s presence this Christmas bring you His comfort and surprise you with His joy, tonight and forward into the future.
Advent 4; 20th December 2020 Fr Michael Fuller - Hell Hell is not an easy belief to accept. Even a seasoned Christian like C.S. Lewis said of it, “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, of Our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason.” (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Macmillan, 1962), p. 118.) In my mid-teens I was coerced into joining a Baptist chapel. The principal thing I remember of worship in that chapel was that there was a lot said and even more sung about Hell. Here, though, was a different idea than I had previously understood. Hell, according to the logic of the songs, wasn’t only a place of the dead but a force ruling the world around me, waging battle against the good. More immediately distressing than the prospect of going there was the idea that it was heading in my direction, determined to overtake me even before my death. “Satan has desired to have you,” the pastor often thundered, quoting Jesus’ words to Peter, “that he may sift you as wheat.” Had Hell already occupied me, before I’d even known about the war? Interestingly, the older I get, the fewer people I meet who worry about—or even believe in a ‘punitive afterlife’, a name given to Hell by Scott Bruce, the editor of a quite terrifying compilation, that I acquired recently, named , “The Penguin Book of Hell,” Bruce in his book includes an excerpt from the Apocalypse of Paul, an apocryphal third-century text that narrates a Revelation-style reverie experienced by Paul of Tarsus. An angel bids the evangelist to come and view the dwelling place of the sinners; he sees a “river of fire,” in which there are “men and women sunk, to varying degrees, in this river. Bruce also quotes the parable in the Gospel of Luke about a rich man and a poor man. Both die and the beggar goes to Heaven, “carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham,” while the rich man is damned to burn. Suffering, he cries out for help. The cry is chilling: “Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus to touch the tip of his finger in water to cool my tongue, for I am suffering in this flame.” Hell has long been used as one of Christianity’s cruder means of maintaining control. Dante, writing in the early fourteenth century, drew on a bounty of hellish material, from Greek, Roman, and, of course, Christian literature, which is rife with horrible visions of Hell. Some spiritual leaders, however, intent on presenting a less vengeful God, have attempted to soften or, in some cases, to abolish Hell. Some time ago, Pope Francis was reported to have said, “A Hell doesn’t exist,” and wayward souls are “annihilated”--poof!—instead of languishing forever. The Vatican denied that the Pope had said any such thing, but it didn’t seem entirely out of character. The great theme of Francis’s pontificate is his emphasis on mercy over judgment. More to the point, he has already made it his business to clarify that Hell, properly understood, is less a place than a state, namely, the state of remoteness from the love of God, an inevitable downside of the gift of free will. Here he echoes C. S. Lewis, who considered Hell a choice. “The doors of hell,” Lewis wrote, “are locked on the inside.” St. Thomas Aquinas argued the opposite. In the “Summa Theologica,” his grand synthesis of Aristotelian philosophy and Christian teaching, he defended the doctrine of Hell and insisted that we should think of it as a benefit, not a threat. Not only does Hell exist, Aquinas reasoned, but those blessed souls who make it to Heaven must be able, by some miracle of cosmic surveillance—like the worst and longest season of “Big Brother”—to see and delight in the fate of Hell’s inhabitants. Origen, the scholar and Church Father, born late in the second century A.D., would, of course disagree with him. He tended to believe that, in the end, all would be spared. In John’s Gospel, Jesus promises that in his death and, later, in his exaltation, he will “draw all people unto Him”—everybody, from the most perfect to the absolute worst, their rapes, massacres, and enslavements notwithstanding. The sacrifice on the Cross was redemption enough for the entire world. I used to think that Hell was a separation from God, I still do. I now feel that however grotesque this world is at times, this is not Hell, but the reason for a Hell to exist, so that those responsible for them can one day get their deserts. Karma within the confines of a wicked person’s lifetime sounds great but is deceptive: so often, the wicked seem to be doing just fine. For all the barbarism of Hell, as it is traditionally taught, its ludicrous time frame, its unfair and somewhat bigoted admissions policy, at least some of the right people turn up in it. It is my firm belief that we ought to do all we can to escape Hell, though to be sure that that is not the reason we love God. Escaping Hell begins with accepting the love shown on the Cross, then walking humbly, pursuing justice and being an instrument of peace. It matters, very much, what we do. Hell, the place of torment is also the consequence of what we don’t do, our failure to speak out and loud against the iniquities of this world. Then why, oh blessed Jesu Christ, should I not love the well? Not for the sake of winning heaven nor of escaping hell. Not with the hope of gaining aught, not seeking a reward; but as thyself has loved me, O ever loving Lord.
3rd Advent Fr Simon Cuff - Heaven Who are you?’ 20 John confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’21And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ 22Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ words from the Gospel of John the first verse, beginning to read at the 19th chapter. Amen.
For those of you familiar with the music streaming service Spotify, you might have seen that Spotify have been offering you the opportunity to see your year in music. It tells you which songs have listened to most and whether you’re in the top percentage of listeners of that song or artist. This can be depressing on a number of levels. At one level it’s a reminder of just how much of our everyday life is tracked and observed. At another level, it’s depressing to realise just how many times you’ve listened to the Mary Poppins’ soundtrack in a single year.
We come this Sunday to the third of our Advent four last things: Heaven. If we think of songs and music associated with heaven, our mind might rush to Berlinda Carlisle’s ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’ - that eighties song that usually accompanies adverts for holiday resorts with white sands and blue seas.
Whilst we might agree that love comes first in heaven, Carlisle’s song locates heaven on earth, the Christian doctrine of heaven is a little different. We can approach heaven on earth, especially in the Mass, but we know we await heaven one day in a new heaven and a new earth when we shall see God face to face. Heaven isn’t quite a place on earth.
In fact, the Christian doctrine of heaven, is surprisingly vague. We get glimpses of what it will be like. We know that it awaits us after the Resurrection of the dead. Just as our Gospel authors avoid attempting to describe the Resurrection, giving us signs of discontinuity as much as continuity, so the accounts of heaven are not complete but point us toward the direction of the reality we will one day experience.
There’s another popular song that captures this kind of glimpse of heaven that’s more in keeping with the Christian doctrine of heaven than Belinda’s Carlisle’s triumphal ballad. Eric Clapton’s ‘Tears in Heaven’ made famous in his ‘Unplugged’ set offers us a more tentative vision. This song is sung in response to the tragic early death of Clapton’s young son. He wrote the song as a means to process his grief.
The song is shot through with hope. Clapton does not doubt that his son will be in heaven. He knows that there’ll be no tears. Sorrow and sighing will flee away. He knows too that heaven is not the place to which he is currently called. But as much as the song includes confident statements about what heaven will be like, it as much about the gentle questioning as the confident assertion. Will his son know his name? Will their relationship remain the same?
As Christians we can sometimes take solace in easy answers and false confidence. We forget that we are a people of faith. Faith in Christ doesn’t preclude questioning, it requires it. My favourite piece of writing by Rowan Williams - a contribution to the Christmas Radio Times whilst he was Archbishop - puts this best: ‘What matters about Jesus isn’t that he always tells us simply what to do. What matters is that he is there – claiming the right to probe our motives and stretch our minds. Faith isn’t just about his teaching or his good example, but his whole life, his whole being. That whole life expresses a committed love that won’t go away whatever we do, and so has the right to ask the awkward questions: the questions posed to us by his birth in poverty and his childhood as a refugee – and the still bigger challenge of his apparent failure and his death.’
Christ asks questions of us. Christian faith is a faith which questions, which enters into the questioning of human life which Christ models to us. Questions like those asked of the Baptist in our Gospel reading. Who are you? Are you the Messiah? Are you Elijah? Are you the prophet?
Our Gospel reading also reminds us that we are not alonein our questioning. John the Baptist, the prophets, the patriarchs, Mary, all those we celebrate in our wreath, all our fore-mothers and fathers in the faith support us as we ask the questions God is calling us to ask, as we confess our faith in the heaven that awaits us, as we realise the limitations of our imaginings will be surpassed in the glory of heaven that awaits us.
In the Eucharist we are about to celebrate we get the closest foretaste of heaven we can enjoy on earth, but we know that whatever heaven will be, it will transcend even this foretaste - it will surpass all of our questions, it will fulfil all of our longings, it will transcend all of our images and imaginations.
On that day we enter heaven we will see God face to face, the face of the one who came down to us with a human face in the feast we are about to celebrate, a vision whose foretaste is being offered to us now as we receive him in bread and wine. It’s this offering of himself in this Eucharist that supports us in all our longing and questioning, even as we prepare to celebrate that birth.
The final verses of Betjeman's Christmas poem sums up everything we’ve been reflecting on this morning, our questioning Christian hope in the Word made flesh offered to us in this Eucharist:
And is it true? And is it true, This most tremendous tale of all, Seen in a stained-glass window's hue, A Baby in an ox's stall? The Maker of the stars and sea Become a Child on earth for me ?
And is it true? For if it is, No loving fingers tying strings Around those tissued fripperies, The sweet and silly Christmas things, Bath salts and inexpensive scent And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells, No carolling in frosty air, Nor all the steeple-shaking bells Can with this single Truth compare – That God was man in Palestine And lives today in Bread and Wine.
2 Advent, December 10 2020 Fr Michael Fuller - Judgement Isa. 40:1-11, 2 Pet. 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8 In the current climate in which so-called alternative facts obscure the very notion of truth, it is refreshing to land in the season of Advent and hear the announcement of “this one fact,” namely, as St Peter tells us in today’s epistle reading, “that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day”. God is Lord of time, Lord of the Ages, and Lord of every moment. God simply is and is sovereign.
From a merely human perspective, it may appear that the Lord is slow about his promise to return, but the Lord’s apparent delay is an expression of divine forbearance. God does not “[want] any to perish, but all to come to repentance” Advent is the season of waiting not only for the coming of the Christ child, but also and especially the coming of Christ again St Peter says, at the end of time. “The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed”.
The problem and challenge, of course, is that the note of expectancy in the article of faith which will recite in moment, — he will come again to judge the living and the dead — is largely absent from the consciousness of the Church, and for reasons that are not hard to understand.
It has been more than 2,000 years, after all. And we need to get on with daily life, which requires some sense of stability and some hope that tomorrow will arrive. Our abiding hope is that history will go on, not end. And, in a sense, this is a deeply Christian hope. All created being is holy, time is sacred, our lives and bodies are temples of God. Christ came that we may have life and have it abundantly. Indeed, this temporal existence is good and beautiful and a gift of God from day to day.
We need to live as if under a vow of stability to get on with a humane life, and to dispose ourselves to daily graces. And we certainly should never do anything to hasten the end, either of our own lives, or of history. God forbid!
Still, time runs out. The Bible tells us so. The elements dissolve. The flower fades. We will all stand before the great judgment seat of Christ. If this truth is allowed a proper place in our Christian lives, it will magnify the preciousness of time.
Time is a treasure precisely because it ends. Each moment and each day is an unrepeatable opportunity in which the grace of God calls out for a deeply personal response that would occur in no other life and in no other time. St Peter again, “Since all things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness?”
There is absolutely nothing morbid about this. Life ends. Christ comes. How will we live?
Imagine a high mountain from which an announcement goes out to the entire world, a herald of good tidings, good news, the justice and mercy for which the ages have hoped. A voice speaks: “Here is your God” (Isa. 40:9). It is fearful in judgment, and beautiful in mercy.
Isaiah tells us, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom”. How will we live? How will we live together under the gaze of justice and mercy? You see God gives and will take away.
Advent Sunday. Fr Simon Cuff. -Death. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. words from the Gospel according to St Mark, the 13th chapter, the 33rd verse. May I speak in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
It’s traditional in Advent to preach on the four ‘last’ things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. As the sermons fall between Fr Michael and I, this means I get death and heaven - on balance probably the better pair. It also means that Fr Michael returns next week to offer us judgement and may well give us hell before the season is out…
It might be tempting in this year of all years to forgo the four last things, especially the one given to us for refection this morning. As we enter a new year this morning, we’re probably all breathing a sigh of relief to leave the last year behind us - a year where death has seemed a more ever-present reality than in any time in our recent past.
Few of us have been left untouched by this renewed proximity of death. This year we have lost friends, loved ones, family members, friends of friends, colleagues. Few of us have escaped the closeness of death that we have experienced this year. Those of us in good health, and who live in relative comfort, are lucky that we can look forward to the spectre of death rescinding a little in the weeks and months to come, as vaccines are rolled out and treatments continue to improve.
This return to normality is something of an illusion. An illusion because we are lucky enough to live in a society where the closeness of death we have experienced is something out of the ordinary. We are removed from the realities of life of those in situations of conflict, poverty, or likelihood of disease.
It’s also an illusion for the reason our Gospel reminds us. We do not know when our time will come. About that day or hour know one knows.
This might terrify us, we might find ourselves afraid to do anything if we’re reminded that death might lurk at any corner. This isn’t the response that our Gospel intends. ‘Beware. Keep alert. Keep awake’. We might think Jesus is telling us to be careful, a sort of public health slogan: stay alert, protect yourself and those around you, save lives.
But the ‘keep awake’ of Jesus’ reminder isn’t to protect us from death, it’s designed to change how we live our lives. We’re called to live lives of faith - lives which believe that death has been defeated, death is not the end. This is what means to live lives that are truly awake - aware of death, but not overcome by it; believing in Christ’s transformation of death, but not careless about living as a result.
Jesus reminds us to ‘keep awake’ in the reality of the end times and the end of live. We are called to live lives that don’t pretend that death isn’t a reality through which we must all pass, and lives which aren’t aware of the death, suffering, and grief of those around us.
To live such lives, means that we are awake to the reality of what death means: there’s no use storing up wealth and stuff for ourselves, there’s no use sleepwalking through the suffering of others and those around us, there’s no use in not being aware of those who grieve the death of loved ones gone before us.
Far from being a fact about the end of life, our knowledge of death and its defeat in Christ, transforms the whole of our lives. Just as the whole of the human race was transformed in the life of the Christchild whose birth we are preparing to celebrate as we enter the season of advent, so the knowledge of what will one day happen to us all, our knowledge that death is inescapable but not the end, transforms how we live the whole of our lives.
We aren’t called to live lives that pretend that death does not exist, but lives that know that death does not win. Lives transformed by that defeat of death which begins with the first gasping breaths of a new born. A new born who goes on to bring new life to us all, that new life which liberates us to truly live, even in a world where death seems close at hand. But a world in which not even death can separate us from the life which that newborn came to bring. We can find no better words for this than those of St Paul:
‘neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord’.
Christ the King 2020. Fr Michael Fuller In the name of God: who was, and is, and is to come. Amen. About four weeks ago, before this latest lockdown I was asked by one of my neighbours, that I know well if I could accompany her two little girls School. Well to be honest I was in a hurry and as we approach the school, a homeless person approached us. They asked for money, and I was not quite sure what to do so I told him I was not able to help him that day. Actually, it is my usual practice is to decline such requests, instead to support St Cyprian’s or local agencies, such as the West London Action for Homeless or the Marylebone Project, who try to help the homeless. It’s a logical position to take, and I have justified it in my mind countless times. But then, as we walked away from the man and towards the school one the girl’s child asked, “why didn’t you help him?” I suspect that we’ve all had those moments when a simple question has challenged us and revealed our hypocrisies. Children particularly have a way of asking just the right questions we need to hear. Perhaps that’s why Jesus said we need to be like children if we want to enter the kingdom of heaven. Our gospel reading today is almost childlike in its simplicity and its capacity to challenge our justifications and excuses. This is not one of those complicated parables, with multiple interpretations. Jesus is crystal clear: we are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and comfort those in prison. To do so is like helping Christ himself. To refuse to do so is like refusing Christ himself, and threatens us with judgment. At the end of our life, Jesus says, we will not be judged by what we have achieved, nor even solely by what we believe, but by our response to human need. By that criteria, who among us would feel comfortable being judged this morning, if this were the last of our days on earth? We notice as well that these are simple things that anyone can do. No great wealth or ability is required to help the hungry, thirsty, sick, cold or prisoners. What is required is an open heart and the constant willingness to respond, when asked. We just need to forget about ourselves and think of others None of this is a partisan issue. We might disagree about the best ways for our government to maintain our social safety net and protect our most vulnerable citizens. But Jesus is not talking about what someone else ought to do for the needy. Jesus is talking about what weare required to do as Christians. In the gospels, Jesus has little to say about the role of government. But he has a lot to say about the role of Christian individuals and communities. We know he would draw our attention to the 20%: the percentage of UK that lives in deep poverty, and what we can do for them. I would go further and suggest that much charitable giving to aid agencies that purport to help the poor is either wasted or actually harms the people it is targeted to help. The evidence for my assertion is the seeming contradiction that millions of £s of charitable giving has barely made a dent in national or international poverty. NO WAY!! Now just in case you are looking for a ‘get out of jail free card’ I am not saying do not give. I am instead suggesting a more common sense approach in which giving builds the capacity of the poor to help themselves, instead of a handout. It’s not a new idea, that it is better to teach someone to fish than to give them a fish. Direct aid with no strings attached can merely increase dependency, charitable organisations need to be more aware when it comes to supporting efforts that provide a hand-up and not a hand-out. But here is the beautiful part of Jesus’ teaching: we are to help the poor not just because they need it, but also because we need it. It does not matter how often we screw things up in life, it remains that we are made in God’s image. We are made to give. Like God, we need to give. We are born with some measure of innate generosity, however much we may suppress it. To give of ourselves, to help the poor and the sick is to put ourselves in a position in which we might see Christ himself in another person. That’s what happened to Saint Francis of Assisi. Before he was a saint, he was a wealthy but unhappy young man. Riding one day he came across a leper, despised by everyone. Moved by pity, Francis got down from his horse and embraced the leper. As he let go, he saw that the leper’s face had changed into the face of Christ. That moment changed Francis’ life. The leper needed Francis. But even more so, Francis needed the leper. He found his own purpose. On this day we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. In so doing, we recognize that Jesus Christ is Lord of all. The battle between good and evil has been won. In Jesus’ resurrection, hate is vanquished by love. Eventually, when Jesus returns, the final vestiges of evil will be washed away, and the kingdom of heaven will reign supreme. Whether we follow Jesus’ command to help those who need our help, or not, God’s kingdom will come just the same. But as we wait for it to come, we can live those values that will, but have not yet prevailed, especially in this time of a pandemic. We need to do so if we are to encounter Christ. You see, in the end, we are the poor ones. We are spiritually poor. We need to give, in order for our spiritual poverty to be eased by the humble King who owns all but gives it all away. Amen.
Sermon by Fr Simon Cuff 2nd before Advent 2020 May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Of all the parables given to us in the Gospels, the parable of the unjust steward we’ve just heard is possibly the most difficult for us to get our heads around. A few details are clear. The steward is not gifted with strong administrative skills. He is not a good custodian of that which is entrusted to him. You wouldn’t want him as the treasurer of your PCC. What then is the point of this parable?
Some readings suggest that usury, unfair interest, is being condemned here. The master has found out that the steward has been inflating what is owed to him, adding a little extra for himself for his own unjust gain. The master then praises the steward for removing the amounts which he had previously added. Possibly, but this doesn’t make much sense of the steward’s apparent motivation. He seems to lower the debts owed to his master simply to curry favour with those in debt. The steward doesn’t want to enter manual labour or beg, but he will presumably be homeless as well as jobless once he is given the sack. Those debtors whose debt he has lowered might at least give him somewhere to stay.
The debtors are the key to unlocking this parable. The master is dismissing the steward on account of his poor administration. Notice that the steward makes no attempt to disprove this allegation. Sure enough, his incompetence is obvious from not knowing how much each debtor owes. But notice what he does know. He knows who owes to his master, even if he can’t quite get his head around the figures. He knows who to go to in a bid to find somewhere to stay. “And his master commended the dishonest steward because he had acted shrewdly”. The steward’s shrewdness clearly does not lie in the gift administration - a gift he simply does not have. Rather the steward’s shrewdness lies in the gift of relationship, his knowledge of those in his master’s debt, and his ability to make shrewd use of that gift. Relationships are at the centre of this parable, just as relationships are at the centre of any parish’s life. The strength of any Christian community is based on the strength of relationships within that community, and with those outside that community. As Christians, we are called upon to get to know each other and to know those outside our community to whom we are called to serve and to whom we address our invitations to join us in worship and fellowship, to join us in song and worship around the altar and in fun and fellowship after Mass or in online quizzes. To make shrewd use of those gifts entrusted to us, for the sake of the people, the community, and the Church we are called to know and serve.
It’s the strength of our relationships as a parish and Christian community that fuel our mission in this place. Our mission at St Cyprian’s is unchanged even though we are unable to physically meet. To be that community centred around the altar, meeting together in fun and conversation outside Mass, building strong relationships across our church family, using the gifts entrusted to it shrewdly not for ourselves but for all those we are called to serve, especially in these difficult and, for many, lonely days and weeks. This morning’s Gospel leaves us with this question: What gifts do we have as individuals and a community that God is asking us to share?
Sermon for the Feast of St Cyprian preached on September 13th 2020 by Reverend Clare Dowding, Rector of St Paul's, Rossmore Road and Area Dean
‘Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and even sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them.’ What does it look like to have faith in the time of coronavirus? Of all the many things we can learn from the life of St Cyprian, one that we may not have foreseen a year ago is his wisdom and teaching about faith in the time of pandemic. In 250 AD a devastating epidemic spread from Ethiopia, across northern Africa to the Western Empire of the Roman world. It lasted over 15 years and at the height of the outbreak 5000 people a day were said to be dying in Rome. By the year 251 AD the plague swept into Carthage, where Cyprian served as Bishop, and he - as shepherd of the persecuted Christian community - faced the challenge of guiding their response to Christ’s call. Ferngren, a church historian writes, ‘the dead lay in the streets, where they had been abandoned by their families. The pagans, trying to find a cause, pointed to the Christians and a severe persecution erupted. The Roman Emperor Decius ordered all Christians to sacrifice to the gods on pain of death. Cyprian enjoined the city’s Christians to give aid to their persecutors and to care for the sick. He urged the rich to donate funds and the poor to volunteer their service for relief efforts, making no distinction between believers and pagans. Under Cyprian’s direction, Christians buried the dead left in the streets and cared for the sick and the dying. For five years Cyprian stood in the breach, organising relief efforts until he was forced into exile.’ Ferngren, ‘A New Era in Roman Healthcare’ (abbreviated) The impact of the care of the Christian community in Carthage and Cyprian’s writings on the illness, mortality and Christian service, were so significant that the plague is often named, ‘The Plague of Cyprian’. I wonder what inspires you most in Cyprian’s response: • giving aid to persecutors • donating funds • volunteering service for relief efforts • making no distinction between believers and pagans • burying the dead • caring for the sick and dying... Not to mention the ongoing life of prayer, fasting and presence that the Christian community continued throughout a time of plague and persecution. Cyprian, following in the footsteps of our Lord, sought to live out the call and example of compassion of Jesus given in our Gospel text today: ‘Jesus went about all the cities and villages ... proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and even sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them.’ Perhaps we see overlaps with our own experience, with our desire to hold onto and live out our faith in the time of coronavirus.
On April 8th, 2020 at the height of the pandemic in the UK, 1072 people died. The Archbishops wrote to clergy just before this date saying that ‘being a member of the Church of England is going to look very different in the days ahead. Our life is going to be less characterised by attendance at church on Sunday, and more characterised by the prayer and service we offer each day.” (Archbishops’ letter to Anglican Clergy, 17.3.20) And our life as Christians changed dramatically, overnight - in every sphere of life - work, school, family, church. Although in many ways we’re still living through this time, it is possible to look back and see some of the ways in which the church responded to that call to compassion and faith: • Nationally, we saw an increase and a renewal in the life of prayer - whether online, on zoom (as you’ve seen here in your own community and life of prayer together), through personal prayer, joining in prayer on radio & TV - the desire to pray, to draw near to God, increased. In many of the conversations I shared with people during lockdown this desire to pray, to turn to God was shared in ways I’d not experienced before. • There was also a sense of grappling with the big questions of suffering, death, grief - and seeking to find God’s presence in the midst of it all - bigger questions about life, our purpose, how we respond to suffering, what happens in death, where do we find hope - maybe you found yourself pondering some of those deeper questions during the long months of lockdown; • There was the creativity of the church in responding with compassion, kindness, active presence - the astonishing display of voluntary service by believers and non-believers, people of all
faiths and none, giving time in phone-calls, shopping, generosity; there was the incredible witness of our chaplains on hospital wards throughout the country, their sacrificial service and dedication in unprecedented circumstances; • and there was a renewed recognition of the life of the church and of individual Christians in society - the trusted relationships and the threads of connection became vital in supporting communities - people ready and willing to respond to their neighbour in need, a desire to serve, as one writer wrote: ‘a thousand tiny graces’ in acts of compassion and love. Cyprian inspired a model of Christian service and mercy that profoundly shaped the life of the church and that model, we might argue, is seen in the way we responded today. Cyprian’s conviction that compassion and mercy were to be shown not only among Christian brethren but also among ‘persecutors’ and ‘pagans’ marked a new chapter in Christian medical charity. His call to active Christian service - in burying the dead, caring for and cleansing the sick, offering alms and food to the hungry changed the course of history and can be seen as part of the long history of Christian hospitality and care - in the founding of hospitals and places of charitable love. Cyprian’s call to service meant that towns where Christian communities were actively present saw fewer deaths than other regions. His church-based diaconal ministry, of loving service in the model of Christ’s servanthood, was provided by unskilled, ordinary people with no medical training. Church leaders encouraged all Christians to pray for the sick, to visit and help the poor, and congregations established ministries of mercy - collecting alms each week to be distributed by deacons and deaconesses.
Perhaps, most significantly, the life of prayer, the teachings of Christ, the witness of Christians, the faithful presence in time of persecution and plague, precipitated a great wave of conversions and a rise in Christian faith throughout the region. And this is our hope and prayer today, that the Church through her witness to the compassion of Christ, Christ the great physician and healer, Christus Medicus (as Augustine loved to call our Lord), will see a rise in faith, hope and love and in a turning of lives to Christ. Cyprian heard that great calling from our Lord, in a time of plague, in a time of persecution, to compassion and Christian charity: He wrote: “Beloved brethren, what a great thing is it, how pertinent, how necessary, that a pestilence and plague which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the righteousness of each one, and examines the minds of the human race, to see whether they who are in health tend the sick...; whether relations affectionately love their kindred; whether physicians do not forsake the beseeching patients...; whether, when their dear ones perish, the rich, even then bestow anything, and give, when they are to die without heirs. Even though this mortality conferred nothing else, it has granted this benefit to Christians and to God’s servants, that we begin gladly to desire martyrdom as we learn not to fear death. These are trainings for us, not deaths, they give the mind the glory of fortitude; by contempt of death they prepare for the crown.” For Cyprian, all of this was preparation for and the revealing of Christ’s kingdom - all of this was ‘trainings’ for the mind ‘the glory of fortitude’ and ‘preparation for the crown’.
All of this is part of our longing to live through those times of ‘fiery ordeal’, as 1 Peter writes, as opportunity to ‘rejoice in so far as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.’ But Christian compassion, care and social action are not just a means to an end - not just that longing for the crown, they are also breaking into the present of how things really are; they are a breaking in of the Kingdom of God on earth as in heaven. During the early months of the pandemic Pope Francis wrote: ‘I am thinking of the saints who live next door - the doctors, volunteers, religious sisters, priests, shop-workers - all performing their duty so society can continue. What we are living in is a time of metanoia (conversion) and we have the chance to begin’. We can learn much from St Cyprian’s faith in the time of plague, from the call to compassion and Christian service, from this time of metanoia and turning to Christ. Let us pray that our lives, our witness, our faith, our service, our longing for the ‘glory of fortitude’ and ‘preparation for the crown’ will be for us a time of metanoia, of turning to Christ - and will be for our nation and world a time of God’s kingdom breaking through, revealed in the compassionate love of Christ. Amen.
Sermon for Trinity 11 Fr Simon Cuff
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Words from our epistle, St Paul’s letter to the Romans. May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes we hear a Bible reading in Church or we come across a passage of Scripture at home, and it’s very hard to see how this could have any practical application to the Christian life today. Bits of the Old Testament about sacrificial offerings and particular agricultural policies of the Ancient Near East, some of the wilder speculations of the Book of Revelation for example.
At other times, like our readings this morning, the pages of Scripture glisten with practical wisdom about how to live our lives. ‘Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.’
You’d think this would make the preacher’s task an easy one. Simply repeat the list of practical golden nuggets, perhaps amplifying them with a few examples of good things to do and bad things to avoid.
And yet, when faced with these pages that seem so clearly applicable to our lives, we need to be careful. All too quickly we can gloss over them, thinking that we know what they say.
‘Do not be haughty but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.’
Love thy neighbour. Be nice to each other. Lovely lovely Christian loveliness. It’s a start. It’s not bad as ways to live go - and if everyone did love their neighbour and was basically nice to each other, the world would certainly be a better place. But this is only the start of the Christian life. Being Christian isn’t simply about being nice, in fact it might involve a certain amount of non-niceness as we follow Christ’s call.
Our Gospel reading reminds us where following Christ can lead us - to the pain and indignity of crucifixion. Not nice.
Our epistle reading suggests that we are not lovely to our enemies for their sake, but the opposite, to upend their unlovely lives: ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Not nice. Don’t throw burning coals at those who are persecuting you, if you want to end the cycle of violence, you can only do that by refusing to perpetuate hate.
Martin Luther King puts this idea best: ‘The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy, instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that’. ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’
Being nice isn’t enough to up end cycles of hate. All too often being nice to people who perpetuate hate, let’s the cycle of hate continue on undisturbed. Where would we be if we were simply nice to racists or misogynists or homophobes or people who ridicule those with disabilities or any other form of difference.
What’s needed is not hatred of those people which perpetuates differences and reinforces them in their cycle of hate.What’s needed isn’t niceness. What’s needed is love.
Our readings this morning reminds us that, you need to love those who perpetuate hate to break them out of the cycle of hatred. And sometimes loving your enemy isn’t very nice. It can lead you to the cross. Sometimes niceness isn’t enough to really love. Being nice doesn’t fulfil the demands of justice.
Martin Luther King again: ‘I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice’.
All too often we translate Scripture’s radical call to justice to the equivalent of King’s ‘negative peace which is the absence of tension’ - being nice. Avoiding a scene. Living a quiet life.
Our readings this morning give us clear guidance on how to live, but we need ever to hear them in their freshness, the radical and demanding call not simply to be nice but to love, and to be prepared for the consequences of that love in trying to play our part in bringing about a better world. A world in which instead of reading again and again of young black people being victims of police brutality, we play our part in having the courage to build a world in which love begets love.
Sermon for the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary - August 16 2020 - Fr Simon Cuff
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. Words from St Luke’s Gospel, the first chapter, the 46th verse. May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
So often in the history of the Church we find a sort of unhappy paradox. At times when we need to be ever more united, we find ourselves ever more divided. The very things that are meant to unite us closely to God and each other, become the very cause of our sad divisions.
No more so is this the case than in how we have approached the Eucharist - the sacrament of unity, given to us the very night that Christ prayed that his Church might be mystically one as he and the Father and One. Far from being a point of unity, centuries of Christian history point to how we understand the Eucharist itself became a point of division.
Symbol, sacrifice or memorial meal - our ways of speaking about the presence of Christ in the eucharist became disputed and all too often a scandal, a stumbling block to each other. Recent decades have seen Christian get ever closer to a shared understanding of Christ’s presence with us when we celebrate the Eucharist - even if exactly how we describe the mystery of that presence remains a source for dispute.
Mary, however, remains troublesome. Christians who have concerns about paying too much attention to Mary in the Christian life baulk at the devotion of those who seem to elevate Mary so close to Christ that she is in danger of appearing to be worshipped herself. Both of these attitudes are well intentioned but misguided. Mary has a particular place in the history of salvation. The Almighty has done great things for her. All generations rightly call her blessed - as Scripture teachers. If we find no place for Mary in our worship and theology, we reduce Christ to an abstraction. And as the former Pope, Pope Benedict reminds us, ‘an abstraction does not need mother’.
On the other, when asked where the light comes from at night, the former preacher to the Pope, Fr Cantalamessa points out: ‘the idiot points at the moon’. Just as the source of moon light is not the moon but the reflection of the light of the Sun, so the grace that fills Mary is not something about her but her reflection of the light of Christ, her reflection of the grace of God in her life. Our Lady reminds that it’s not so much that there’s something about Mary, rather there’s something about the One to whom she always points, the light which she always reflects.
Mary is a gift to us as Christians. The disputes around her are a sad distraction from the Christian life which shines through her. A life lived consistently in God’s yes. A life grounded consistently in her ‘let it be unto me according to thy word’. A life that shows that the calling to follow Christ includes downs as well as ups - shame and heartache - as well as the joy of family, parties like those at Cana, and ultimately the eternal joy of the heavenly banquet to which God called Mary home.
Mary’s Christian life is expressed wonderfully in the famous hymn by the 17th Century Bishop, Thomas Ken. A life which begins with a recognition of God as a witness to Christ ends in a call to her heavenly homeland. ‘Her Virgin eyes saw God incarnate born… Heaven with transcendent joys her entrance graced’. Most of us will have to wait to the end of time to enjoy our heavenly home, which Mary enjoys. ‘near to his throne her Son his Mother placed’. In the meantime those of here below, Ken reminds us, ‘now she's of heaven possessed… are to call her blessed’.
Not only, have we come to believe that we have a duty to call her ‘blessed’, but that like all the Saints, her work for us is not yet done. Mary, like all of the Saints, stand as fellow members of the body of Christ - and just as we ask each other to pray, so too we can ask Mary and all of the Saints for their prayers. Prayers that we too, like Mary, may say yes to God’s call on our lives - discover our particular vocation - and remain faithful to our ‘let it be to me according to thy word’ whatever challenges and joys our particular vocation may bring.
May Mary and all of the Saints pray for us as we seek to remain faithful to the call of God’s Word.
Trinity 9 Fr Michael Fuller
‘Peter answered Jesus, “Lord if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.’
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus has left his disciples so that he can find time to pray and meditate. He tells them to go on ahead of him and he will catch up.
Then in Matthew’s narrative we find Jesus’ disciples terrified on the Sea of Galilee. It’s certainly not the first time.
The disciples are no strangers to this lake. Actually, they’re out on it all the time. Even before Jesus called them to fish for people, they fished here for fish, no doubt risking life and limb for a good catch.
A quick look back at chapter eight reminds us of a traumatic previous experience they had not so very long ago.
You may recall the story: A storm arises, so strong that the boat is swamped, and it begins to sink. Scared to death, the disciples yell to Jesus, who is fast asleep in the back, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” Jesus responds calmly, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he gets up, rebukes the wind, calms the sea, and the disciples are amazed.
Today, however, it’s not the weather that frightens the disciples. By now, they can handle being tossed about by strong winds and waves. Been there, done that.
No, today they are frightened by something else—an eerie figure walking toward them on the surface of the sea. “It’s a ghost!” they cry, but Jesus reassures them. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Alas, these comforting words do not quite satisfy Peter, (let alone the ability to defy gravity) Peter seeks further proof of Jesus’ identity. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus agrees, “Come.”
Peter does. But after just a few steps, the wind startles him and he begins to sink, crying, “Lord, save me!” Of course, Jesus does save him, but he also asks him this sobering question: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Jesus’ question is a different version of the same one he asked back in chapter eight. It’s déjà vu—right here in the middle of the Sea of Galilee.
Make no mistake my friends, these questions are just as much for us as they were for those early disciples.
So, why do we doubt? Jesus calmed a storm with his voice, fed five thousand people with only a few loaves of bread, and walked on water. In light of all this, why would we ever lack faith?
Well, one answer is fear. Like the disciples, sometimes storms pop up in our lives and scare us half to death. That’s what storms do.
But it’s not just wind and rainstorms that scare us; so do the metaphorical storms of our lives. Things like global pandemics, horrific explosions caused by government corruption, economic downturns, and relational discord can shake us to the core.
In the midst of difficult setbacks like these, it’s not uncommon for anyone to doubt their faith in God. That’s exactly what happened to Peter in today’s gospel, and it’s exactly what the disciples did in chapter eight.
All Jesus does is ask why. Like any good teacher, he already knows the answer to the question, but he wants us to know it, too.
It’s at this point I want to encourage you to concentrate on Peter and see how he might link with us here in 2020 in this time of pandemic, with the threat of a second wave hanging over us.
If you are Peter, a seasoned fisherman, and a great wind picks up while you are in the middle of a sea, you know that this is not safe. You need to get close to shore.
When you see a figure out on the water, I don’t think your first thought is that all will be well. It would, I suggest, be like a grim foreboding.
But if you were to feel that it might be the presence of God what do you do?
When that figure calls out to you, “Come!” What would you do?
Well this is the situation in which many Christians have found themselves down through the centuries. Not necessarily literally, but certainly figuratively as Jesus has continued to call and invite and lead us.
Jesus has consistently called people to step out of their boat or their comfort zone and follow his lead.
Jesus’ question, ‘why did you doubt?’ prompts us to realise that faith is always within our reach. In other words, even in the stormiest times of life, when we most doubt our ability to make it, we can remain faithful to God.
Staying faithful to God doesn’t simply mean going through the motions. It doesn’t mean reciting the creed while thinking about a shopping list, or repeating Bible verses from memory. It means for us, just like Peter, refocusing on our commitment to faith.
We will not always be perfectly faithful. Doubts will creep in, but the important thing is to recover from those doubts and return to a place of faith.
Our faith is strengthened and sustained by our relationship with God and nurtured by participating in our life in Christ through things such as the sacraments, reading the scripture, praying, and attending worship.
Christ continues to invite us closer to examine God’s gift of love and grace. In this time of a pandemic, are we prepared to get out of the boat and come closer?
Trinity 6 Church Service Fr Michael Fuller
Saint Paul writes “For in hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is not hope. But if we hope for what we do not see we wait for it with patience.” I believe that as we come out of lockdown it is time to ask ourselves an important question: What’s the point of Christianity? Because in the big scheme of things, is the purpose of having a Christian faith primarily for gaining political power, or creating and enforcing laws, or hoarding wealth, or living as comfortable a life as possible? Or is it ultimately about bettering — and saving — humanity? These past months has seen Christian theologians, celebrities, institutions, and communities publicly declare many things — all under the banner of “Christianity” — about what God might be thinking during the pandemic; what is politically right and wrong and who is good or bad. To my mind this forces believers to prioritise the role Jesus plays in their lives. Because the reality is that the Good News of the gospel cannot be heard and accepted unless we imitate Jesus. The Bible shows us that Jesus is the best example of who to follow, so why aren’t we Christians doing so? What’s the point of Christianity if people who worship the Prince of Peace also vigorously allow governments around the world to support policies that allow tens of thousands of people to die each year through poverty, starvation or simply through not having something as simple as fresh water? What’s the point of Christianity if people who pray to the King of Kings also seek wealth and privilege at the expense of the oppressed through corrupt systems that maintain and promote systemic financial corruption as well as educational and racial injustice? What’s the point of Christianity if Christians — who celebrate a man who was crucified on a cross by an authoritarian regime, refuse to stand up and defend the rights of those facing persecution because of their skin colour, ethnic background, gender orientation, or political beliefs? What’s the point of Christianity if we celebrate God as the creator of the world while subsequently destroying the environment and participating in wasteful consumer-centric practices? God is not glorified by turning a blind eye to corruption and God is not glorified if God’s Church holds views that are misogynist, sexist or racist As a Christian, helping humanity — specifically those who are exploited, destitute, and struggling to survive — isn’t contingent upon whether it’s safe, fiscally beneficial, comfortable, or even by what society might consider to be in its “best interest.” In fact, the interests of Jesus are usually the exact opposite of mainstream culture. A Jesus-centred Christianity is illogical in that it requires inordinate amounts of self-sacrificial love — to the point of being absurd: absurdly gracious, hospitable, kind, patient, peaceful, self-controlled, and giving. And doing all of this — following Jesus — is hard. Humbly serving others, defending the powerless, fighting for the oppressed, and radically loving the world around you isn’t for the faint of heart, and it rarely results in the prizes our society so ardently adores — fame, fortune, influence, and power — which might also explain why so many Christians choose to trust, and follow, and put their hope in so many other things other than Jesus. So when we’re confronted with national questions regarding racism, national security, the economy, and social justice issues, we must remind ourselves of that corny old adage: “What Would Jesus Do?” because we already know what he did, and it’s our responsibility to do the exact same thing. God help us.
Trinity 6 Zoom Service Fr Michael Fuller
Some words from the 28th Chapter of Genesis today's Old Testament reading. “He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set.” Jacob is a man on the run. His very birth foreshadows events to come. Most of us, I suspect, know what it is like to live life on the run in some senses. Some of us are running from our past, trying to escape guilt, regret, failures, disappointments. Some are trying to get away from the pain, losses, and brokenness of life. Other times we are running toward the future. For some, life on the run is a search for something or someone new; a job, a relationship. Maybe it is the search for answers. Who am I? What is this life all about? What’s my purpose? Most of us know what it is like to live life on the run due to schedules, chaos, and the busyness of life. Life is measured by accomplishments and to do lists. I suspect we could each tell a story of life on the run. It may be specific to us, but it is really just another version of Jacob’s story - running. Jacob will soon learn he can run but he cannot hide. Life on the run eventually takes us to that certain place somewhere between Beer-Sheba and Haran. This is not so much a geographical location as it is a spiritual orientation. This is the place where we are most vulnerable and open to seeing and hearing God in new ways. That certain place is a night-time place where the sun has set. It is a place of darkness illumined by the unknown. Enlightenment is not about what you know but who you know, trust, and follow. It happens not in the mind but deep in the heart. This is a hard place, full of stones. Yet it is a place of grace. When the sun has set and darkness takes over, you can longer go on. You can only stop and lie down. It is a point of surrender but not a place of giving up. We stop running from life, ourselves, and more importantly from God. Jacob’s ladder reveals the connection between heaven and earth, divinity and humanity, the uncreated and the created. It appears at every moment in our life, even life on the run. The ladder Jacob saw was not in a physical location. It was within him. It was not a vision but a dream. Through Jacob, God reveals that the ladder of his love, his life, and his connection to us is found deep within ourselves, a place so deep that it is seen in the gift of a dream. We call it Jacob’s ladder, but it is not possessed by Jacob. It is God’s ladder placed in each one of us. The miracle is not that God shows up and breaks into our lives. That is always happening. The miracle is that we recognize it within ourselves. The ladder is revealed in places we never would have expected. “Surely the Lord in this place – and I did not know it.” What parts of our life are lived on the run? What are we searching for? What are we running from? Stop running. Trust that certain place between Beer-Sheba and Haran. Let the sun set and do not be afraid. God’s ladder is, and always has been, within you. No matter who you are, where you go, or where you run to, the ladder of connection goes with you. It is a part of you. Wake up and see that the dream has come true. “Surely the Lord is in this place and I now know it.”
Trinity 3 by Fr Simon Cuff
He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’
Words from our first reading; the book of genesis, the 22nd chapter, beginning to read at the 9th verse. May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
I want this morning to reflect on three themes as we turn to re-open St Cyprian’s for public worship and think about the future of our church in light of the return to the church and the need for us to ask deep questions about who we are and what our mission and ministry should look like in the months and years ahead - building on what we have learned together during lockdown and what we need to do to ready ourselves in anticipation of a new season of ministry. These are: presence, responsiveness, and perspective.
In ordinary circumstances we would be in the middle of ordination season. Bishops and ordinands, families and friends would be gathering in sweltering cathedrals. Bishops up and down the country would be preparing to lay their hands on candidates who had many months ago put themselves forward for discernment.
It’s almost guaranteed that the same congregations will have to sing Dan Schutte’s modern hymn: ‘I the Lord of Sea and Sky’ with its refrainHere I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night I will go, Lord, if you lead me I will hold your people in my heart’. The hymn is sung because it’s refrain of ‘here I am’ echoes the ‘here I am’ each of those candidates who would about to be ordained.
Like our own John, each ordinand has responded to God’s call with a ‘here I am’ putting themselves forward for selection, enduring the formation of theological college, and finally presenting themselves before the Bishop. As we know, these are not ordinary circumstances. John says goodbye to us today to be licensed as a lay worker until his ordination can take place safely in the autumn when he can continue his ‘here I am’ before the bishop as he is ordained to the ministry of deacon.
The ‘here I am’ of our first reading, seems, at first, rather different to the ‘here I am’ of an ordination service or Dan Schutte’s hymn. In fact, this episode in Genesis is framed by three ‘here I ams’.
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’
Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’
Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’
Abraham’s tender ‘here I am’ to his son, even when he knows the task he has seemingly been set, is sandwiched between his two ‘here I ams’ in faithful response to God. Abraham is not only ‘responsive’ as the ‘here I am’ of Dan Schutte’s him, he is present - present and response to his Son; present and responsive to God. ‘Here I am’.
Part of this episode I think is meant to signal to us just how far we are called to go in our presence and response not only to God but to each other. That it seems ludicrous to us that God might ask this of us is, I think - part of the point. The apparent tenderness of Abraham’s ‘here I am, my son’ only heightens this impression. It’s part of how this text functions as Scripture - generating a response in us.
The idea that God might require a such thing of us is abhorrent - but what are we willing to give up in response to his call?
The idea that God might require a such thing of us is abhorrent - only to focus our attention all the more on what God has done for us in Christ - the death of his only Son to give life to all his children.
Indeed, it’s not unusual for Christians to read this passage as a type of Christ - pointing forward to the crucifixion. Indeed, we know this story as the ‘sacrifice’ of Isaac. Though, of course, it is anything but. God provides an alternative sacrifice - the ram caught in the thicket. We might more accurately describe this episode as Abraham’s sacrifice - or the sacrifice of the ram caught in the thicket. Jewish readers of this text know this episode not as the ‘sacrifice’ of Isaac, but ‘the binding’. Whereas we Christians know it by a name which highlights the potential death of Issac, Jewish readers emphasise that the sacrifice did not happen. Isaac was merely bound. This was almost certainly for apologetic reasons as Christian and Jewish communities disputed the interpretation of shared texts. As Christians, we refer to the ‘sacrifice’ of Isaac to underline that Jesus really did die on the cross and rise again. He wasn’t merely bound or taken away.
What does of all this have to do with anything you might ask? Even the very name we give this episode as Jewish or Christian readers of the text underlines the importance of perspective. Our perspective on even one story in the Old Testament is guided by who we are.
Perspective has been one thing gifted to us during lockdown. Not only have we been given the gift of insight to see who and what really matters in life - what we really do need and those often overlooked and underpaid people on whom we rely to provide healthcare in our hospitals, food on our shelves, deliveries to our door - we have also been given a renewed perspective on each other. We have become a community. We have learned a little of each others stories. We have not simply talked to our same old friends and faces.
As we return to Church and begin a new phase in the life of St Cyprians we are asked this morning ‘of whose perspective do we need to be aware that we might otherwise overlook?’, ‘who are the little ones in our community that God is calling us to recognise?’, and what is our part in the St Cyprians we want to build together as the body of Christ: to whom are we called to present? How are we called to respond?
Trinity 2 2020 by Fr Michael Fuller
Jesus said, “Nothing is covered that will not be revealed or hidden that will not be known.”
When I was at Theological College 27 years ago, the then progressive wing of the C of E introduced what they call ‘The Kingdom Season’. This confused me, not being very bright, because I thought every season was the Kingdom season.
From this grew such concepts as the Kingdom life and Kingdom living, whatever that meant.
Today in the Gospel reading, in a conversation with us, his disciples, Jesus encourages us to stand up for, what the church would call kingdom living; a life lived in such a way that it might even mean being in conflict with the mainstream of society. You will be maligned, says Jesus, for witnessing to this mission and ministry of mine.
In the Bible, such witnessing always means taking some kind of action on behalf of those who are otherwise disenfranchised, no matter how much doing so might fly in the face of tradition or is simply inconvenient.
We are to be fearless in our witness to the new kingdom life Jesus comes to proclaim and live. We can be fearless because there is much about God and kingdom life that is yet to be revealed.
That which is covered or hidden will be revealed. Revelation continues. It does not end with tradition or Scripture. God's revelation is not limited to a handful of Biblical writers and editors who gave us our Scriptures. God, says Jesus, is not limited at all except by the limits of our own perceptions of God and God's intended kingdom.
There are those who live among us, fortunately, who every day seek to help us see that which is covered and hidden about God. In our tradition we call these people mystics because they are able to recognize some of the mysteries of God's hidden-ness in the midst of our everyday surroundings and encounters with one another.
One such person we remembered this past week in our Calendar of Holy people was Evelyn Underhill who died on June 15, 1941. Evelyn, lived and wrote in my previous Parish of Holland Park, was a layperson, and someone with little formal religious training. Yet, her ability to recognize the hidden dimensions of God's presence in our life and to write about these mysteries of God makes her one of the most significant witnesses to Christ in our century. That few Christians have ever heard of Evelyn Underhill speaks to the hidden nature of God's ongoing revelation itself. Just listen to this prayer of Evelyn Underhill: Lord! Give me courage and love to open the door and constrain You to enter, whatever the disguise You come in, even before I fully recognize my guest. Come in! Enter my small life! Lay Your sacred hands on all the common things and small interests of that life and bless and change them. Transfigure my small resources, make them sacred. And in them give me your very self. Amen
Consider this together with that verse from Revelation 3: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock" This is depicted in western art throughout the ages as Jesus standing at the door, lantern in hand, knocking on the door.
This is the inner truth about God in Christ: he is in fact always standing at the door and knocking, waiting for us to open our door.
What is a not so hidden truth about us, even those of us who are disciples of the One we call Lord: we tend to keep our doors closed. And we tend not to hear the knocking. Why?
Because we are too busy doing so many, many important things that we just do not hear Jesus knocking on our door. If we are not busy with work or family, we are so busy with church busy-ness that we cannot hear Jesus knocking at the door.
That, I believe, is Jesus' constant complaint about organised religion and tradition: it keeps us too busy to hear or participate in God's ongoing revelation. And so whatever new thing God is presently calling into being through this pandemic may well remain hidden to us.
Then when we do hear the knocking, we tend to look out the spy hole to see who it is. Oh, no! We say. It's Jesus! I know what he's all about, and he's going to want me to do something for someone.
So we run and get our ‘iPhones to check our diaries, run back to the door, and without opening it shout through the keyhole and say, "Look, Jesus, I am awfully busy today! I am a week late with this task or that job, I have a stack of phone messages to respond to, but look, I have an opening a week from Thursday at 2:00pm. Could you come back then, or perhaps Zoom would be easier?"
Lord! we pray, Give us the courage and love to constrain Jesus to enter. To constrain means to force, to urge, to compel.
What Evelyn Underhill knows is that in all depictions of Revelation 3:20 in Western art, there is never a doorknob or handle on Jesus' side of the door.
We need to open our doors ourselves to let God in. Or else God remains hidden from us and we remain hidden from God.
God who, says Jesus, urgently wants to count the hairs of our head. That's a way of expressing just how close God wants to be with us, and will be with us, if we would only open our doors more often.
This God we are to constrain to enter our lives comes, evidently, in many disguises. That is, we will not always immediately recognize God in Christ when he does enter.
Which is not so odd.
Our Lord now lives in his resurrected glory. The disciples did not recognize the risen Lord by his appearance, but rather in what he did. And what he did was break bread, eat fish, and show them his wounds.
Yet, they do not recognize him when he is hungry, thirsty, in prison, a stranger, or naked. We do not recognize Jesus when he is homeless, or lost, or standing on the street with an outstretched hand.
It is a scary thing to open the door. It is a scarier thing to walk out the door and into the world to walk with Christ in his many disguises.
Yet, Revelation 3 goes on to say that whenever we open that door, we are going to eat and drink and have a truly wonderful time because God will be in our midst. Emmanuel, God with us.
Underhill puts it this way: Come in! Enter my small life! Lay Your sacred hands on all the common things and small interests of that life and bless and change them. Transfigure my small resources, make them sacred. And in them give me your very self.
This is a wonderful promise, whether in the words of St John the Divine or Evelyn Underhill. Everything about us can be made new, blessed, and sacred.
Most of all, Christ can be present in all that we have and all that we are, all of the time!
Pray with Evelyn Underhill every day. Listen for that knocking on the door. With courage and love, open that door and welcome the Risen Lord even before we recognize our guest. The Kingdom of God is at hand for those who have eyes to see it and the time to let it into our midst.
There is nothing that is hidden that cannot be made known if only we will open our doors and let Jesus come in!
Corpus Christi 2020 Fr Simon Cuff
‘Grant that all we, who are partakers of this holy communion, may be fulfilled with thy grace and heavenly benediction; through Jesus Christ our Lord, by whom, and with whom, and in whom, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honour and glory be unto thee, O Father almighty, world without end’ words from the eucharistic prayer of the Book of Common Prayer. May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life. Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the wine we offer you: fruit of the vine and work of human hands, it will become our spiritual drink.
These prayers are said by the priest either quietly during the offertory hymn or aloud during a low Mass. They remind us of the intimate connection between human labour and divine gift in every Eucharist.
In our modern age where bread and wine have become sheer commodities, we are far removed from the realties of production of most of the bread we consume and the, um, considerable amounts of wine we drink. Even those of us who have spent lockdown baking have probably not grown the wheat and milled the flour. We probably don’t know the farmer’s name or the miller who ground the flour on our behalf.
Earlier generations knew this connection between their everyday life and work, and the gifts they offered up at the altar. When the priest offered up the bread and wine on their behalf there was an intimate connection between the everyday labour of the community worshipping and the community’s worship. At least of the bread. The wine was received only by the priest in the medieval church and communities in Britain tended not to have a climate conducive to much wine-growing, not even Wendover. The consecration of the bread was a consecration of the fruits of the labour of the local community. The fruits of those labour were not only offered up to God, they became the means by which God himself became present among them in bread and wine. God entered not only into their lives through bread and wine. God’s entry into their life through the Sacrament was intimately bound up with their daily life.
Our relationship to the eucharist which we celebrate today can all too easily be divorced from the reality of our daily lives. It becomes transactional. We go to Church to receive God in bread and wine, or to witness the liturgy, or to listen to the music. And we go home. The reality of the God we’ve received in bread is confined to the wafer or the building. Our everyday lives remain relatively untouched by our communion.
This time of lockdown has changed all of our lives. We can no longer go to church to receive communion, and probably won’t be able to freely for quite some time. What does it mean to celebrate our celebration of the Eucharist as we do today? We can still celebrate our communion with God and with each other. In circumstances which prevent us from receiving Holy Communion, Spiritual communion is no less a communion with God.
Today is a reminder that our communion with God shouldn’t be the weekly transaction that it can all too easily become. Even our weekly Zoom can become the same sort of transaction we can fall into ordinary times. We log on, we catch up, we say our prayer of communion. As we ‘leave meeting’ or meeting is ‘ended by host’, we can get back to our baking or our next Zoom meeting or the next chapter of our book or the next episode of whatever it is we’re watching or our next walk around Regent’s Park and our daily life remains relatively unchanged by our divine encounter. We all too easily forget God all over again.
Wherefore, O Lord and heavenly Father, we thy humble servants, having in remembrance the precious death and passion of thy dear Son, his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension, entirely desire thy fatherly goodness mercifully to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; At the heart of every eucharist is remembrance. We remember the events of Jesus’s death and passion. We are once again in the upper room at the first last supper. We remember the reality of his resurrection and ascension. As we remember we offer God bread and wine and he is present to us through them. As we remember we not only offer bread and wine, but the fruits of our lives, the whole of ourselves and the whole of our daily lives.
Our remembrance each week is a reminder to remember. Our communion helps us to remember God a little more each time we leave church or click ‘leave meeting’. This is why we celebrate communion.
To paraphrase Rowan Williams, we don’t celebrate communion because that’s one of those things that we do at church. We celebrate communion to form us into the church. As we celebrate communion, God’s presence with us helps us in our remembrance of the saving events of Christ’s death and resurrection. God’s presence helps us to remember him a little more in our daily lives. We see God’s presence in bread and wine and we can become more alive to God’s presence in the rest of our lives. This is what we celebrate today. God’s gift of himself to us in bread and wine - our communion with him. We remember together here so that we might become better at remembering him in our daily lives. We offer him the fruit of our daily lives to invite him to the intimacy of our daily lives, so that we learn to recognise his already intimate presence in our daily lives. So that when we leave church or click ‘leave meeting’ we learn to realise once again that he never leave us and is constantly giving himself to us not only in our life in church but in the whole of life, gifted to us by him.
Trinity Sunday 2020 Fr Michael Fuller
I have a confession to make. Not a terribly serious one, but I think I should tell you anyhow. It is nine years since I last preached on Trinity Sunday.
The reason for this is that I think there are always more important things for us to concern ourselves with, rather than trying to define the nature of God.
One of these being trying to put into practice our faith, before attempting to be precise about what is meant when referring to God as the Holy Trinity.
With that in mind the question that keeps coming back to me was, can anything else arise which is wrong during this pandemic? As if a global pandemic was not sufficient.
Now we have an ineffective and confused government, who seem unable to think logically or in a joined-up way and treat the electorate as gullible.
An American President who uses the Word of God to cover up his own racist views and those of his supporters, then threatens to use the military against his own people.
A Chinese government that has an appalling human rights record looking to further restrict the freedoms of the peoples of Hong Kong.
Then there is the Church??
Today it is encouraging us to grasp the essence of the nature of God as Trinity as if it is urgent and important.
How could an abstract-sounding church doctrine matter now in a world of chaos?
The thing is that is that if we put our mind to it, we can discover in scripture and the teaching of the Church that the nature of God is simply an essential connectedness.
This ‘communion’ within God gives us a glimpse into the very nature of God – and, knowing that, a deep connectedness describes consummately the universe in which we live and speaks to the longings in our own hearts as we are separated from others. Before God created anything, there was a communion of three separate persons of the Godhead who created us out of love, for love.
This is why we were created: to be in a healthy, loving relationship with God and all creation. And out of this web of relationships comes both our salvation and the redemption of all creation.
The word Trinity never actually appears in the Bible. Yet, in passages like our Gospel reading today, we are expected to baptise new followers of Jesus in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
We can see that the first Christians were less concerned about doctrinal formulation than in following the way of Jesus. They patterned their daily lives in prayer and fasting, in service to others, and gathering for worship.
Into that community, they baptised new followers using that same Trinitarian formula. In time, they came to think through what it meant to speak of a God who is both one and three.
Throughout the Bible, there was both the idea of one God and the description of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Sadly, the analogies that are constantly used to describe the Trinity, and are almost certainly heretical, just don’t add up. God is more than we can get our minds around and that is how it is.
Yet the Trinity is not a mystery in the sense of a puzzle that we can’t solve; the Trinity is a mystery inasmuch as we see the truth of it, but we just don’t get the breadth of it.
Using the word mystery, in this case, is closer to describing as mystery the love we share as human beings.
We think we know so much about those we love, and yet there always more to discover in the relationship with our partner, spouse or offspring.
We can and do know about the nature of God from God, by the revelation of scripture, from the way God is revealed in nature, and through that most perfect revelation of God, Jesus the Christ.
And yet, there is more than we already know – a mystery that is deeper than our minds can fathom.
Early Christians looked to God as revealed in scripture and, with a nudge or two from that undivided Triune God, forged the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
Then, moving back from that concept, they looked anew at the scripture and discovered how well it all fitted.
Reading the Bible with new eyes, they saw that God was in communion with God’s own self before creation.
God is a relationship among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and then God creates all that is - for relationship.
If we humans preferred to be alone and came together only rarely to procreate and then separate as some animals do, the theory would fall short at this point. But we humans love to be together.
This is a lesson learned so well during the lockdown, following instructions that have come with the pandemic, however chaotically, confusing they have been.
We are, in fact, the beings in communion we were created to be. Being separated by the coronavirus has not broken that sense of communion.
Across the Church, people are finding ways to stay connected, imperfect as they are, though thanks to Kyle we are getting better, our new ways of Zooming come from a deep longing which is in the very heart of Holy Trinity.
Jesus would put it this way: Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and love your neighbour as yourself.
This is what we were created for: love upward toward God and outward toward humankind.
That web of relationships is very interconnected. When we come to love God more, we grow a heart for other people as God has, and so love of God draws us to other people.
Loving other people fully means seeing them as God sees them, and so loving people can also draw us to God. It is the communion for which we were created.
Also, if we are being candid about the interconnectedness of creation, we must acknowledge that woven within the tapestry are not just people and animals, but bacteria and viruses.
Rather than accidents, they are part of the created order which gives rise not just to pain and suffering, but also a world where generosity, kindness, and self-sacrificial love are possible.
In this time of physical distancing to limit the spread of the virus, we are discovering more about how deep our human longing is for community.
We are connected deeply to all creation. That is the essential reality the Trinity helps us to understand.
Early Christians put the practices of faith ahead of trying to be precise about what they meant when referring to God as Trinity.
We can and ought to prioritise practices of faith and let our understanding catch up later.
The important thing is that when we are in a connectedness with God - the Holy Spirit will work through our imperfect words and actions to connect us to others and more fully to our Trinitarian God.
Praise God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit
Pentecost Sermon Fr Simon Cuff
‘When you were baptised it’s as though you were mixed into dough. When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, it’s as though you were baked’. Words from Augustine’s 272nd sermon. May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we celebrate the gift of the Spirit to the Church, first at Pentecost, sacramentally when we are Confirmed and at every moment as the Spirit breathes and moves through the Church and world - God holding his Church and creation in being. When St Augustine is seeking a metaphor to describe the role of the Spirit in our Christian lives he uses the image of baking. ‘When you were baptised’ he says you were mixed into the dough of the body of Christ. You became a member of the Church, but when you received the Spirit you came to share in the fullness of life - as though were baked. Like dough rising in a furnace, so you come to share in the fulness of the risen life through the work of the Holy Spirit. The fire of the Spirit is what turns us from raw dough to baked good. It completes our preparation for the Christian life.
Many of us have become rather more use to baking than we were at the beginning of this year. I can now include in my repertoire: Sourdough, soda, white, wholemeal, pastry, shortcrust, puff (a bit of an effort), vegan souffles made with leftover bean-water - a triumph once and more like delicious accidental soups, or ‘soup-les’, in subsequent attempts that stubbornly refuse to do anything like rise. There is more to the image of the Christian life as being like baked bread than meets the eye. Just as we don’t make bread for the sake of it, the Christian life isn’t finished when we’ve received the fire of the Spirit in Confirmation. We don’t make bread rolls for no good reason or just to look pretty - we make bread to feed us. So too, we’re not called to be Christians and given a share in the Spirit for no good reason or to just to make the world a prettier place for all the lovely Church buildings we’ve produced, we are the body of Christ, called to feed and serve the world.
The Spirit isn’t just given to us for its own sake, as we read in the first letter to the Corinthians. ‘To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.’ The Spirit is given to us for a purpose, for the common good. We are the body of Christ - equipped with a variety of tools and skills - for the common good. Like bread, we exist to nourish and feed the world. We are given the Spirit; we exist as Christians not for ourselves but for others. To be Christian is to live for others. To be drawn into the body of Christ through baptism, to share in the Spirit through confirmation, to live all of our lives oriented toward God and for those around us. However, there are limits to St Augustine’s baking analogy. As we all know, to bake you need a lot of stuff. Flour, yeast, a sourdough starter that you may or may not have killed by trying to reactivate it, any number of trays, brushes, tins, and accoutrement.
The Christian life isn’t like this at all. We don’t need to go searching for the last bag of this or the last sachet of that on a supermarket shelf. God has given us everything we need to be the Christians he has calling us to be. He has given us the gifts to equip us for our part in the common good. He has given us the means to use them even when we are still locked at home. Like the disciples in our Gospel, ‘doors locked’ through fear of what might happen if they encountered those out to harm them, Christ meets us even here and continues to give us that share in his Spirit which enables us to play our part, to be the bread that gives life the world in the way he is calling us to share in the bread of life which gives life to others. Even during lockdown Christ has been with us, giving us a share in his Spirit, greeting us with those words with which he often greets his disciples: ‘Peace be with you’, and preparing us for when we can move freely, like those first disciples, preparing us to be sent out to share the good news of Jesus to a hungry and expectant world. We may struggle to see how it is that God is calling us to be that bread, what he is given us to serve the common good, we may find it difficult to believe that we are up to the task. But we are. Because we know we have been called by God through baptism, we have been equipped with our share in the Spirit to serve the common good. If nothing else we can pray that ancient hymn - sung at ordinations and consecrations - invoking the Spirit and asking God to show us the answers to these questions, asking for the gift of insight - asking to see how it is he is calling each of us, you, me to serve the common good - even from behind our lock doors and especially in the days and weeks to come as like those first disciples we step out once more into the world: Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire and lighten with celestial fire; thou the anointing Spirit art, who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart.
Thy blessed unction from above is comfort, life, and fire of love; enable with perpetual light the dullness of our mortal sight.
Teach us to know the Father, Son, and thee, of both, to be but one; that through the ages all along this may be our endless song:
Praise to thine eternal merit, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Easter 7 sermon by Fr Michael Fuller
Jesus said, “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
2020 has given us all our very own “separation sadness” moments, too many to count. COVID-19 has forced us all to maintain physical distance, cancelling our services, keeping us apart, away from our churches and away from the Eucharist.
What, then, does Jesus’ prayer for us all to be one mean here, for us, in our times? How can we “be one” when we have to settle for online services, phone calls, and Zoom meetings rather than the hugs, sacraments, and in-person love to which we are so accustomed?
The church throughout history has had its share of separation sadness. The 1918 flu pandemic most recently forced churches closed in many of the same ways that we have had to close in 2020.
The HIV-AIDS pandemic gave people a healthy fear of disease and of one another, too, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.
Long before that, plagues would occasionally rip through the population, forcing separations and leaving sickness and death in their wake.
In turbulent times, it is helpful to remember that we are not the first to walk the road before us. We are not the first church people to experience the “separation sadness” caused by disease. In this Gospel passage, Jesus is preparing to die. He has spent a long time talking to the disciples and attempting to prepare them, as he shared dinner with them and laid aside his robe like a servant, the night before he would lay down his life for his friends. Now, it seems, Jesus is preparing both himself and his disciples for his death, as he prays for them.
Some of us will understand what it is like to be with a person as they prepare to die. We know that truths are spoken then. We may know how to say goodbye. The farewell discourse is more relatable in its Holy Week context than it perhaps is here, in the Easter lectionary, after the Ascension.
Perhaps one thing this pandemic has done for us is to point out that we don’t often know how to be separate but still united.
Now, as we read this passage in light of the Ascension, we realize that that is exactly what Jesus is preparing them for — to remain united with him, and with each other, even when he is not physically present.
Later in this chapter of John, Jesus will say, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”
Crisis teaches us truths.
This is true of the disciples at the time of Jesus’ death, and it is true of us here in 2020. In the Gospel of John, Jesus himself is the Word made flesh, the truth made flesh. In Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the disciples learn that the worst thing is never the last thing, but that in Christ, all things are made new.
In our own time, perhaps, we are learning similar things.
When Christ ascended, the disciples looked around at each other, and the sky, such that the angels standing by asked them, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” It is okay not to know what to do next. It is okay to be still. It is okay to put one foot in front of the other and muddle through.
And it is okay to be taken aback by physical separation from those we love and whose presence comforts us and lifts us up. Though even in our separation sadness and frustration we must continue to protect others and ourselves.
We are learning, or have learned, to be with one another, united in Christ, even when we are not physically present. During our time of “separation sadness,” we have united around the Word and our mutual love for Christ and for one another.
We have done nothing perfectly, but we have allowed the crisis to teach us. We have been sanctified by the truth and held together in love by Christ.
This might also serve to teach us other things, such as how we are united in Christ with people we have never met: St Cyprian’s people are beginning to speak with strangers who we are welcoming.
Christians around the world continue to gather, and Christ’s prayer is that we be one with them. Christ is holding us together with people all around the world. Even though we cannot be physically present with Christians in other nations, we can be united with them in Christ, just as we have been united even in our own separations within our congregations. We are also united with the saints throughout history:
Christian heroes from all walks of life and throughout the ages are united with us, too, though we have never been able to be physically present with them. Let our separation during the pandemic always remind us that physical separation is no obstacle to Christ, who holds us all together in love.
Perhaps, then, this pandemic can teach us more than how to better wash our hands.
Perhaps it can do more than be a moment of separation sadness for all of us.
Perhaps it can truly teach us to be one in Christ with people with whom we may never be physically present in this life.
Perhaps it can serve as a reminder that regardless, we are all one in Christ, and Christ is with us, now and always. In Christ, neither death, nor life, nor pandemics, nor wars can ever separate us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Ascension Day Fr Simon Cuff ‘When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight’ words from the Acts of the Apostles, the 1st chapter, the ninth verse. May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Human beings are perverse. We try to put ourselves at the centre of everything. We constantly make little gods of our own devising. We fashion idols that take the place of God in our lives. We elevate little bits of our selves or our ways of being that become objects of worship in our daily lives. When it comes to what matters, we get completely the wrong end of the stick. We fail to give God his due.
Sometimes, I look around at the actions of our fellow human beings, at my own actions, and wonder what exactly God sees in us that he goes to such extraordinary lengths to save us, to snap us out of our idolatry and muddle-headedness, and to call us to himself in Christ. We human beings even try to make our selves the centre of everything when it comes to our faith. We misread this or that bit of the Christian story so that instead of giving God his due and placing him at the centre, this or that article of faith becomes a story about us.
When it comes to the feast of the Ascension our perversion runs deeper still. Our capacity to misplace our focus shows no limits. Our ability to look for value and find meaning in the wrong place is front and centre stage.
‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?’
Why are you looking in the wrong place?
We perverse human beings who are always ready to make ourselves the centre of the story, suddenly decide that, when it comes to the Ascension that Christ is the centre.
We tell ourselves that the Ascension is about Jesus finally going home to heaven. We make ourselves images of his feet dangling out of the sky as he travels upward. We write ourselves out of the story.
And yet, and this is where things get really perverse, the Ascension of Christ is actually about us. It is about us. We are front and centre, and yet with uncharacteristic modesty we write ourselves out of it. We focus on the heavenly rocket man returning home instead. The Ascension is about humanity. It is, for once, about us. Or rather it’s about what God has done for us in Christ and what that means for our humanity. This is not about a journey through the skies, but God’s action in Christ.
Pope Benedict XVI remarked, in words worth quoting at length: ‘The Ascension is not described as a journey to on high but rather as an action of the power of God who introduces Jesus into the space of closeness to the Divine… In Christ ascended into Heaven, the human being has entered into intimacy with God in a new and unheard-of way; humanity henceforth finds room in God for ever. “Heaven”: this word Heaven does not indicate a place above the stars but something far more daring and sublime: it indicates Christ himself, the divine Person who welcomes humanity fully and for ever, the One in whom God and humankind are inseparably united for ever. Humankind’s being in God, this is Heaven.’
The Ascension teaches us something profound about what God has done to us and for us in Christ. “Humanity finds room in God for ever.”
In Christ, God has entered into and transformed the perversion and muddle-headedness of our humanity. He’s not just patched us up and left us looking up to the sky. He’s not some kind of heavenly superman who’s flown in, saved the day, and flown out. He has became one of us, he has died for all of us. He transformed us, and has taken us to himself in the Ascension, into the very centre of the divine life.
‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?’
Why are you looking the wrong place?
The Ascension isn’t about where Jesus has gone. We know from the end of Matthew’s Gospel that he is with us always. We know that in the Mass too he is with us in bread and wine. He is with us as we make our Communion spiritually in a few moments.
The Ascension is not about where Jesus has gone, but about what God has done and is doing for us in Christ. It’s about the transformation of our human nature. It’s a story that reminds us that we are not the centre of every story, by reminding us that God has taken us to himself, to the very centre of the divine life.
Why then our uncharacteristic modesty? Why do we unusually
struggle to see ourselves at the centre of this particular story? Why? Because to do so would be to see ourselves as God sees us, and that idea terrifies us a little. To think that we might be able to live lives so completely directed toward God that we might cease to be the centre of attention.
If we see ourselves as God sees us, if we see the Ascension as revealing to us the closeness of God to us at each and every hour, if we come to see our true being: our world is turned upside down, our priorities upended, our lives transformed.
In this Mass, as in every Mass, the bread and the wine are transformed, but more astonishingly, so are we. We hard-hearted and slow to believed are transformed. We are transformed to transform others and the world around us.
We leave this encounter transformed and mindful of what the Ascension teaches us about human nature, the intimate closeness we enjoy with God. And our eyes are set once more firmly on our heavenly home revealed to us in the Ascension: “Humankind’s being in God, this is Heaven”.
Sixth Week of Easter 17th May 2020, MrJohn Blackburne. Ordinand God is not far from each one of us: ‘For in Him we live and move and have our being.’ Acts: Chapter 17 verse 28. During the week I work for the Ministry of Justice. After six weeks at home because our office had closed in the face of a global pandemic I was ordered back to work. Not just me, I had to tell my whole team, half an office of administrative workers they must return too. I didn’t like that made me feel really bad. I had spent the weeks before ensuring as many as my team as I could arrange for could had been provided with laptops so they could work from home. But that was not good enough. Now they had to return to work to open the office for business. At that stage the Government’s message was you must stay at home, stay isolated, save the NHS – I had a letter from the prime Minister telling me to do so! I had felt secure, safe, if a little stressed. None of the staff who work in our office are highly paid. Almost all rely on public transport for travel, mainly London Underground, the oldest metro system in the world, with the signalling to match! I asked what had changed since we went into the lockdown? Materially I could see nothing that meant we could rush back to the office. I suggested that before we return the Department might need to complete a risk assessment, to reassure our teams, and ensure best practice. This unleashed upon me a cascade of emails from my line manager, and other senior managers, demanding to know why? At that moment as a Christian in the workplace I suddenly had sympathy for St Paul facing an alien culture and attempting to be true to his faith and witness to God.
The queries came thick and fast, who was asking, can I identify them, who in my team had a problem could they be spoken to? Didn’t they understand that they are key workers delivering justice? This was before, of course, the leaks to the press to say we would be repaid by having our salaries frozen for the next two years to pay for the lockdown. I declined the kind offer of naming staff afraid to use the Tube to get to work and then spend a day working with other staff who had also used the Tube to get to work without knowing whether they had encountered the great enemy which is Covid-19? That great Satan of the underground prowling around’ like a mugger seeking whom he may devour! Finally, I went back to them and said actually it isn’t me. And it is not my colleagues either – it is the law? Health and safety legislation and employment rights law! I had to tell the ministry of justice who run the courts, prisons, and the tribunals, that they must follow the law that we force on everyone else! I have not heard a word back from them since. Twenty years ago the church had concluded a decade of evangelism and produced a report – the Church had been fired up by the missional call to preach afresh the Gospel to every generation – which is the vocation of each one of us who calls ourselves a disciple of our Lord. The report said that the crucial task in the coming years is to discover new ways of ‘being church in a new age’. The difficulty it said is that we are in a ‘post’ age – post-evangelical, post-ideological, post-structural, post-industrial, post-secular, post-colonial, post-modern? And most of all post-Christian, and from my point of view working in the Civil service post-justice and post kindness? If we were on the margins then look at us now? We are lock-in but locked out! Whatever advantages ‘establishment’ once brought us we are at the margins like never before – outside looking in! So that brings us back to the first reading in the Acts of the Apostles and St Paul in Athens. Paul is on his second missionary journey he has crossed the north of the Mediterranean coast across to Macedonia and then down to Thessalonica and Athens. By now he has established a pattern; he goes to the Synagogue and preaches to the Jewish community, he is given short shrift and goes on to the market place where his message is sufficiently well received that he is invited to present his new teaching about Jesus and his resurrection to the Greek philosophers. In order to appeal to them Paul has to speak to them in terms they understand so he begins by speaking of ‘God in creation’. In doing so he sets out for us today, how we must engage with the world - putting our understanding of God and our relationship to Him in terms of creation and new creation. At this time in our nation’s life people are looking for something to believe in, to hold on to, to give them some perspective when everything else is uncertain; Home, work and family relationships are all on hold , and the messages are confused, where can we put our trust? Not in politicians - we cannot trust their words; Not in economics – economics has failed; What do we have to fall back on but community and relationships, even newly forged communities and relationships like that we have developed here, this must be a new model for our Church in a new age? So St Paul says: ‘What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you: The God who made the world and everything in it, he is Lord of heaven and earth; He himself gives all mortals life and breath and all things’. Without our grounding in God we have no reference point; without my grounding in God I cannot stand up to injustice at work; With my grounding in God I cannot preach a gospel and witness to Christ’s resurrection - I cannot be light to the world;
Paul is persecuted he is ridiculed but he preaches the gospel just the same because at the end of the day although sometimes we feel we have to search for God/ even grope to find him, he is not far from each one of us: For we cannot stand against an unjust and uncaring world unless we have faith and trust in Him: ‘For in him, we live and move, and have our being’. Amen.
Easter 5 by Fr Simon Cuff
Once you were not a people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Words from the 1st letter of Peter the 2nd chapter, the 10th verse. May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy Spirit. Amen.
How has lockdown changed you?
How has lockdown changed us?
As we see the first signs that the government might be testing what the reversal of lockdown might look like it feels like a time to begin to reflect on what has happened to us as individuals and as a worshipping community over the last two months.
All of us will have had different experiences of being in lockdown. Some of us have lost friends and loved ones. Some of us have friends and loved ones who have fallen ill and will remain ill for many months as they slowly recover. Some of us will have enjoyed the time to be alone, to discover new things about ourselves and what we the real necessities of life are. Some of us will have hated it. Many of us will have watched the clock eagerly each evening as it approached 6pm - either to join us in evening prayer or to go in search of the tonic.
Whatever our experience of lockdown, it will have had an impact on us. On us. We have been reminded through being alone that we are never alone. Our lives are interconnected and this shared experience has underlined that we are always an ‘us’, however individualised our world our society might seem or however much others try to divide us and set us against each other. To be human is to be part of an ‘us’ which is bigger than ourselves. God isn’t just with you or with me. God is with us, as we read at the beginning of St Matthew’s Gospel, and we are learning what it means to take this ‘us’ seriously.
Those of use who are meeting each week to worship are part not just of the ‘us’ of humanity, but the ‘us’ of those who are Christian. That ‘us’ which has called to himself for the sake of the entire human ‘us’.
We’re still in the midst of Eastertide. Celebrating Holy Week in lockdown had a special poignancy as the emotions of uncertainty and a situation of testing and trial spoke to us in ways that we sometimes missed in Holy Weeks past. Celebrating Easter in lockdown has had challenges as we still feel like we are in living through the provisionality of Holy Saturday, ‘the longest of days’ as the scholar George Steiner once described it, the ‘long day’s journey of the Saturday’, the ‘immensity of waiting’ which is what it means to be human.
Yet the Christian faith reminds us that we are not a Holy Saturday people but an Easter people.
We celebrate the Resurrection in Eastertide and every Sunday because we believe we share in the risen life of Easter even now. And this is true even in lockdown, even though it might feel more like Holy Saturday than Easter Day. Even in lockdown we are taking our share in the Risen Life of Easter, we are playing our part in the Resurrection to which we are called.
’Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.’
Our second reading echoes the words of the prophet Hosea in reflecting on what it is that God has done in Christ - that living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight - through whom we have been called out of darkness into his marvellous light.
’Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.’
One of the ways I think lockdown has changed us, as the community gathering together as St Cyprian’s is that it has formed us together as a people. Once we were not a people, but now we are God’s people. We have related to each other from inside our homes, we have got to know some people we didn’t know before, we feel closer to those faces we see in church from week to week, we’ve shared a little of each other’s lives in ways we sometimes do not always get to share - the weather in Vancouver, the price of flour in Wendover, the strange absence of gin in any of the shops in or around Fr Michael’s flat.
We have been living the new life of Easter. We have been formed as a people out of a people who were once were not a people.
We have come to share something of the joy of Easter even as we have been isolated in our own homes and dwelling places.
Whatever life looks like as lockdown begins to end, we should build on this encounter with the Risen Christ. We should become more of a people not less. We should ask ourselves what these new relationships and depth of relationship mean for those of us tasked with serving the community in which we live as the church of St Cyprian’s under a new incumbent and in the months and years ahead.
As we leave our homes, we need to continue to ask ourselves what have we learned about how we might make the community of St Cyprians which has been a home for us during our forced exile and isolation, a home for those in and around Marylebone currently unaware of our existence.
The miracle of all this - our new found sense of relationship, the community that’s been built virtually, the glimpses of the Risen life we’ve been able to see even in the midst of isolation - is that all of this has come as we have been confined to our homes. Most of us are lucky to have homes in which we feel safe, but even those of us who are happy in our homes know that these homes are temporary, or perhaps better, are illusory. Our real life, our real home is hid with Christ in God.
‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.’
These are the dwelling place, the homes, to which God is calling us, these are the homes which God is calling us to use our earthly home to point towards through our charity and neighbourliness, these are the homes that God is calling us to fashion an image of in the home that St Cyprians has become for us and will, we pray, come to be for others in the week and months and years ahead.
Easter 4 by Fr Michael Fuller When I was 15, I moved to North Devon to undertake my basic training in preparation to becoming an engineer.
I was lodged on a farm that had nearly 800 sheep. If anyone here thinks sheep are stupid, think again!
If you have seen sheep mingling together and several flocks can mix together, when the flocks’ true shepherd speaks, they separate and follow him.
If you should happen to get caught in the midst of a flock of sheep and you are not the true shepherd, beware!!
This fourth Sunday of Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday and the 23rd Psalm sums up the concept of Jesus being the Good Shepherd.
Some of you will recall the Sunday-school posters of this favourite psalm superimposed on beautiful painted pictures of Jesus on a grassy hillside, with a lamb over his shoulders, rescuing it from danger.
In 1742 Charles Wesley wrote that somewhat nauseating hymn:
Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, Look upon a little child; Pity my simplicity, Suffer me to come to Thee.
The saving grace of the hymn is in the final verse: I shall then show forth Thy praise, Serve Thee all my happy days; Then the world shall always see Christ, the holy Child, in me.
What an aspiration!
Many people still get great comfort from the image of the kind and gentle Jesus who cares for all God’s creatures.
This is the Jesus who stays with us, through nights of weeping, and loneliness, and worry, and despair, through the horror of Covid-19..
And in times of danger and grief, many of us will turn to the Twenty-Third Psalm for comfort.
At memorial services, it evokes the kind and loving presence of the God who promises an eternal dwelling place.
But then, there are the times such as now, when events in our lives or in our world throw our peace, our hopefulness and our comfort into doubt.
Times when the Jesus we remember from our childhood, smiling on that grassy hillside seems almost irrelevant to the darkness of the world.
How do we begin to understand a world where we are in perpetual lockdown?
In today’s Gospel Jesus was in the Portico of Solomon and perhaps the people crowding around Jesus were asking similar questions?
At the Feast of the Dedication, the feast we now know as Hanukkah, the people remembered how the nation rededicated the temple after a great leader, Judas Maccabeus, defeated the Greek conquerors in 164 BC.
The festival remembered the suffering of the Jewish people under the Greek Empire, and rejoiced at their great victory.
Against this background, with Roman soldiers hovering and memories of thousands of crucified would-be rebels and other unjust suffering fresh in their minds, people asked Jesus, “Are you the Messiah?”
Would Jesus be the new hero who would drive out the Roman invader? Would the nation be free and independent once more?
The people crowding around Jesus want a clear and decisive answer. Instead, Jesus is cryptic and evasive. The people want him to speak with authority about weapons and strategies; instead, he talks about sheep.
To their demand that he assume the leadership for which they have been hoping, he answers with a claim of leadership so astounding that many of them pick up stones to kill him on the spot: he claims to be one with God the Father.
This is no gentle, meek and mild Jesus on a green, rolling hillside.
This is a fierce, uncompromising Jesus, a Jesus who refuses to meet any earthly expectations.
A Jesus whose frame of reference is so far removed from that of the people around him that it is a wonder he escapes with his life.
Indeed, John tells us that the next time Jesus dares to show his face in Jerusalem, the chief priests hatch a scheme to have him crucified.
How do we reconcile the gentle, kind shepherd Jesus, the one who would go anywhere and risk anything to save even the smallest lamb, with the Jesus who provoked his enemies to violence?
How does this Jesus have anything at all to do with the worries and dangers of our lives?
How can our faith in Jesus help us through a human tragedy like the one brought about by the Coronavirus?
What can the gentle shepherd do to help?
The wonderful thing about Psalm 23 is just how realistic it is about the darkness of life.
Perhaps the picture we get of the Good Shepherd from art and music and childhood memories is an image of pure light and pure sweetness.
But the psalm itself knows darkness and fear. Like the writer of the psalm, many of us Christians have travelled through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
We too have known the threat of the unknown. And yet many have also known the comfort of God’s presence, walking alongside them through that dark valley.
Many have experienced transcendent holiness and light in the darkest of times.
People who spend much time with those who are ill or bereaved begin to know what kind of help brings true comfort.
Comfort does not come from assurances that everything will be all right or from platitudes that try to explain why everything that happens is God’s will.
Comfort comes from the simple presence of companions who are willing to sit alongside us in our darkest hours, to walk through the darkness with us.
To help us make the darkness holy, and to rejoice with us when small glimmers of light finally begin to shine.
And at the heart of it, that is what our Christian faith can tell us. It tells us that the Easter Jesus, our Lord and Saviour, the great hero who liberates us, is not the God of light alone.
Jesus is sovereign over the darkness too, because he too has been enfolded by darkness.
Like us, he has grieved over the senseless waste and tragedy of life.
Like us, he has agonized over those who suffer. As all of us will eventually, he has entered into the darkness of death.
With all of us, he promises to walk that road so that we do not have to walk it alone. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”
The ultimate truth of our Christian faith, the truth we remember this Easter season and every Sunday as we celebrate the Lord’s Resurrection, is that our Shepherd leads us out of death into life.
The Lord who was crucified and who rose again is the same Lord who promises to redeem the world, to relieve it’s suffering, to restore it to wholeness.
The risen Lord is the sign of the life that God promises to all of us.
Life transformed, life redeemed, life restored, life abundant, life joyous and eternal and blessed.
God prepares a table for all of us: a table full with overflowing cups and overabundant blessings.
Then when we fully understand that Jesus the Good Shepherd is the gate, Jesus is the entry point into all change, depth, struggle, and love—it’s simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating. As the saying goes, “God loves us exactly as we are, and God loves us far too much to leave us that way.”
Whatever is your answer, be persuaded that Jesus, our Great Shepherd, invites us to come and share with him at the table of blessing.
Will we today respond to that invitation?
Easter 3 by Fr Simon Cuff ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When I was a curate I was taught two golden rules of preaching.1) Always preach to your self; and 2) Never preach about your self, and certainly never preach about something that you happened to do in the preceding week…
Earlier this week, I had the privilege of attending a Bible study led by former Archbishop Rowan Williams. As ever with Bishop Rowan, we were all transfixed, albeit at our computer screens, as he unpacked the 20th chapter of the Gospel of John for us. To be frank, he could have been selling us a second-hand anything given his gifts of communication and ability to hold our attention. As he spoke, suddenly words and phrases of which had washed over me in the daily office and at Masses since Easter Day came alive.
As he preached the Gospel, focusing on how Mary Magdalen and Peter moved from casually noticing things about the resurrection site to really seeing, staring at, being transfixed on Jesus, seeing and then really seeing, I realised that my heart was burning within me. John 20 was suddenly as fresh as if it was the first time I’d ever read it, and the Resurrection glistened, suddenly seeming more real and Jesus seeming more alive in our midst.
‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’
Our Gospel reading this morning is an account of a resurrection appearance given to us by St Luke. We all know the story. Two disciples are walking to Emmaus, talking about all that had gone on in the previous days. Someone appears who they don’t recognise - we’re not even told whether they noticed somebody walking with them straight away. This stranger unpacks the Scriptures for them but they still don’t recognise him.
There was something about him which made them not want him to leave when he looks like he’s about to continue on his way. It’s only as they break bread together, that they recognise him. And just as they do, he vanishes from their sight. The disciples see him, but the fail to really see him, to recognise who he is.
This passage often leads to reflection on the importance of the sacraments in the Christian life. It’s not in talking about the events in Jerusalem or on meditating on the Scriptures that they recognise Jesus, it’s as they break bread with him that they recognise his presence with them.
Tempting as it is to preach such a sermon today - reminding ourselves that Jesus is present with us in the Eucharist, there is no better way to see Jesus that to receive the Eucharist, there is no closer to heaven we get on earth than sharing in eucharistic fellowship, this is not a sermon for today.
What does the encounter on the road to Emmaus say to us today? What does Luke’s account of this resurrection appearance mean for those of us who are not able to receive the Eucharist, who might be unable to see Jesus as we break bread together?
‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’
The disciples are slow to recognise Jesus, slow to see him for who he really is.
It’s not when the disciples break bread that Jesus comes to be with them. Jesus is with them all along the way, even when they fail to realise who it is who is speaking with them. Despite their slowness to recognise him, he’s with them. He’s with them as they meditate on the Scriptures. He’s with them as they reflect on the events that have just taken place. He’s with them as they break bread. Throughout, Jesus is with them.
It’s not breaking bread that brings Jesus to be with them. It’s the breaking of bread that enables them to realise that Jesus is with them. They come to realise what is always the case through sharing in the breaking of the bread. The breaking of the bread is a ‘quickening ordinance’ enlivening their insight, enabling them to see what is really the case.
What does this mean for us who find ourselves unable to physically partake of the Sacrament? Jesus is with us even if we might not be able to recognise him or see him very clearly at all.
Jesus is with us as we reflect on the situation in which we find ourselves. Jesus is with us as we meditate on Scriptures together. Jesus is with us as we make our spiritual communion and we reminds ourselves of his presence with us. Jesus is with us as we worry. Jesus is with us as with mourn. Jesus is with us. Jesus is ‘with us always, even to the end of the age.’
Instead of seeing this time as merely a time of deprivation - a time in which we are unable to receive Jesus sacramentally, let us instead receive this time as a gift of remembering what is always the case - that Jesus is with us - and to recognise Christ’s presence with us in ways we are slow to recognise or aren’t always able to see.
Let’s commit ourselves not to take for granted our reception of Jesus in that particularly profound way that we celebrate in the eucharist.
Let’s never again allow our celebration to become matter of fact or run of the mill.
Let us remind ourselves that the Eucharist isn’t the only way in which Jesus is present to us, he is with us always. When we celebrate the Eucharist together, we are celebrating what is always the case - that Jesus is with us always, even to the end of the age.
We can put this more technically the body of Christ isn’t confined to the Sacrament alone. St Augustine, as is so often the case, puts this best. When we receive the Eucharist, he writes
‘it is the sacrament of yourselves that is placed on the Lord’s table, and it is the sacrament of yourselves that you are receiving. You reply ‘Amen’ to what you are, and thereby agree that such you are. You heard the words ‘The body of Christ’ and you reply ‘Amen’. Be, then, a member of Christ’s body, so that your ‘Amen’ may accord with the truth. Yes, but why all this in bread? Here let us not advance any ideas of our own, but listen again to what the Apostle says when speaking of this sacrament: ‘Because there is one loaf, we, though we are many, form one body’. Let your mind assimilate that statement and be glad, for there you will find unity, truth, devotion and love. Bear in mind that bread is not made of a single grain, but of many. Be, then, what you see, and receive what you are’.
As we await the day we can once again share the bread of the eucharist together, as we await the day on which we can be the body of Christ together sacramentally, in the mean time, be what you are, celebrate what is always the case. You are the body of Christ. Christ is with you always, even to the end of the age, even if we are slow to perceive and we struggle to see him, he is with us wherever we are and in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. Let us find him in our midst and may our hearts burn within us at the joy of discovering him afresh.
Holy Week & Easter 2020 services led by Fr Simon Cuff
PALM SUNDAY 'Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do’ This week the sermons at Mass, beginning today and continuing each evening with Mass on Monday to Wednesday and the liturgies of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, are on the theme of ‘the Seven Last words of Christ on the Cross. We begin this morning reflecting on those famous words: ‘Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do’ These last words of Jesus from the cross refer to his executioners and remind us of our destination this week, but they might equally refer to the crowds whose greeting we’ve re-enacted this morning. The crowds greet Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem with shouts of ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming! Hosanna in the highest!’. The story is so familiar to us that we miss just how strange this is. Crowds line up to meet a man riding into town on a donkey. They shout ‘hosanna’! The word ‘hosanna’ trips off our tongues, so much so that we don’t stop to think how strange it is that a crowd of people should greet a man on a donkey this way. ‘Hosanna!’, they shout, which means ‘Save us, please!’. ‘Forgive them, Father, they know what they do.’ The crowds fail to realise how true their words are. They link their shouts of ‘save us, please!’ immediately to the kingdom of their father David. For nearly two centuries Israel, which had once been ruled by David and his line, had had another family on the throne. Their cries of ‘Save us!’ are political. House of David, take back control! They expect their salvation to be earthly, to be a restoration of something lost, to be a recovery of a glorious past. And yet this week their expectations will be confounded. This man is to be for the falling and rising of many in Israel. Their expectations will be turned upside down. Their cries of ‘save us!’ will turn out to be true, but they know not what they say. As we enter into Holy Week, as we begin our journey toward the events of Good Friday, we’re invited to join with the crowds in their shouts of ‘Save us, please!’. ‘Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do.’ These last words of Jesus from the cross, might refer equally to us. How many times in our lives have we’ve failed, flailed around from one mistake to another, not knowing what it is we should do? How much of life have we given over to the Lord? With how much of our past are we at peace, with how many of our past regrets are we reconciled? This week is a week to join in with the crowd's shouts of ‘save us!’. To believe not in a political or earthly Saviour, but to start to live our life as if we are really in need of salvation. To believe that the cries of ‘save us!’ teach us as much about ourselves, as they do about Christ. We can affirm in our hearts that Christ is our Saviour, but do we really live as if we are in need of salvation? Do we really believe we can amend those bits of our lives that have kept us sinking for so longing? Those bits of us that embarrass us, that we struggle to admit even to ourselves. This week is a week to step out of the stormy seas of our lives. To seek for Christ in the midst of the strange and fearful circumstances in which we find ourselves. To cry to God in Christ, ‘save us!’. To cling to him - and to give him the very depths of ourselves - those fears and failings and faults and regrets and worries and anxieties and troubles that we’ve carried with us for too long. This week we lay them at his feet. This week we welcome him into the very depths of ourselves with shouts of ‘Hosanna!’. This week we cry out to Christ, ’Save us, please!’. MONDAY IN HOLY WEEK One of the thieves crucified with Jesus said: 'This man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’. These words have long puzzled scholars. On the face of it Jesus seems to be telling the penitent thief that they will both soon be in paradise. All well and good. They both die. They both go to heaven. Except this isn’t what the Church teaches about the end of life. The pictures we have in our head of heavenly bliss, fluffy white clouds, halos and cream cheese are fairly recent ones. ‘I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’. We all too easily rattle this off each week as we say the creed. These words give us the contours of our belief in life after death. The Church teaches bodily resurrection at some future point before the eternity of risen life. As Christ was risen, so will we be. Until then, we all wait. The dead as much as the living - the Church expectant as much as the Church militant. So what are we to make of the exchange between Jesus and the penitent thief? If what we believe about life after death is true, we would expect Jesus to say something like: ‘Truly I tell you, after what will seem like some time, you will rise to eternal life’. But he doesn’t. ‘Today you will be with be in paradise’. We have some options here. We might say: ‘Very good Jesus but your theology’s a bit off’. He didn’t have very many qualifications after all. Or we might say: ‘Well, maybe, the Resurrection doesn’t matter so much all things considered’. Except, if Jesus went to the trouble of rising again, and the weight of Christian history suggests that we too shall one die rise with him, it’s probably a good idea to think the Resurrection is quite important. Or, better, we might think Jesus knows exactly what he’s saying, and he’s using it to teach us something. Whenever we think Jesus might be trying to tell us something it’s usually a fair bet that he’ll be upending the instinctive notions to which we cling so dearly, those tribal notions of what it is to be human and how we are to live our lives which the whole of Jesus’ life turn upside down . In this case, we should hold our instinctive notions of what heaven might be like quite closely, because it looks like it’s these are the target in Jesus’ view. ’Today, you will be with me in paradise’. We’ll soon hear the haunting words, ‘Very early on the first day of the week’, as the women go to the tomb and become the first witnesses of the Resurrection. We’ll be reminded that the Resurrection is the first day of the new creation, that Resurrection is an act of new creation. Just as at the beginning of the Bible, human life is first created in a garden, so at the end of the Gospel new life is created in a garden from which Christ is Risen, as we’ll joyfully proclaim. Creation began in paradise, in the garden of Eden. New Creation likewise begins in a garden, in which Christ is Risen from the tomb. New Creation. New Paradise. ‘Today, you will be with me in paradise’. The confession of the penitent thief will place him in paradise that day, but that paradise isn’t Eden, or a place of fluffy white clouds, but Golgotha - the place where Jesus will rise again. As Jesus rises, so does the penitent thief and so do we, and all who find themselves in Christ. Jesus isn’t promising the thief instant entry to heaven, but reassuring him that he will be remembered when he comes into his kingdom. When he rises again, the penitent thief will rise with him - and so shall we. Paradise isn’t waiting for us in heaven. Paradise is the resurrection. And we, like the thief, can share in that resurrection today. If we, like the thief, cling to Christ; if we too ask him to remember us when he comes into his kingdom, we will have taken our share in the new life of Easter. If we share our whole selves with him, we’ll find our whole selves taken up, resurrected in him. And this life starts today. Mary and Martha knew this. They knew that there was no use waiting for the tomb - Christ’s Risen life meant that anointing him could take place here and now, no need to anoint him for death because he was destined to be laid in that tomb for new and eternal life. The Resurrection. In our Gospel, Jesus rebukes Judas for suggesting that they are wasting costly ointment: ’Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me’ We might not always have Jesus, but he will always have us. If we cling to him, here and now: ‘Today we can be with him paradise’.
TUESDAY IN HOLY WEEK 'Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. If you get ordained, you quickly learn that human beings have an awful lot in common. We all make things much more difficult for ourselves than they need be. We all want to be loved. We all sin. And if you spend any time at all hearing confessions, you quickly learn that even the most exciting sin is boring. Sin is dull, mundane, and, mostly, unimaginative. The sinner who thinks she or he is the worst person in the world is always mistaken. Likewise, the person who’s afraid of coming to confession because they think they’re beyond repentance or God doesn’t love them because of what they’ve done or if anyone found out about how awful they really are then they’d have no friends and their family would disown them are all mistaken. Sin is the same the world over. The Devil has very few new ideas. Whereas we make things difficult for ourselves, God tries to make things easy. Think of the commands of Christ in Scripture. ‘Don’t heap up empty phrases like the Gentiles do, but when you pray, pray this way’. ‘Love God. Love your neighbour’. Where the Church gets itself in a mess arguing this or that about everything from what happens in the Eucharist to the role of the Virgin Mary, Christ tries to make it easy: ‘Do this in memory of me’. 'Woman, here is your son; here is your mother’. God knows what we’re like. Not only did he become one of us, he created all of us. He created you. ‘The Lord called you before you were born, while you were in your mother’s womb he named you, and he said to you, you are my servant’. This verse from our first reading is a summary of the whole Christian life. Believe in the God who created you, find out the name he gave you, do what he has called you. Simple. Simple, except, God created you, he knows what you’re like, and he knows how difficult you can make things for yourself. He wants to make it easy for you. In our gospel, Jesus predicts two betrayals. Judas hands Jesus over to death. Peter denies he knows who Jesus is. The history of the Church has condemned the first and absolved the second. Both Judas and Peter deny Jesus, both in their own way betray him. We have much in common with Judas and Peter. God created them, just as he created us. He knows them, just as he knows us. He called them both and gave them both a name. And he knows how difficult they made things for themselves. We think we know what Judas’ mistake is. He betrayed Christ - he chose money and sin over faithfulness to Christ. This isn’t Judas’ mistake. Judas’ mistake is our mistake. He made things difficult for himself. His mistake wasn’t alerting the authorities to Christ - somebody needed to. Without Judas’ betrayal, his ‘handing over’, Jesus wouldn’t have been put to death for our salvation. Humanity wouldn’t have rejected the love that came to save it and show it how to love, to break the boring cycle of sin, and human beings making things difficult for themselves. Jesus even tells him to ‘Do quickly what you are going to do.’ Judas’ mistake isn’t what he did in handing over Christ, but his rejection of the life God had in store for him. Judas sinned, he betrayed Christ. He did what we all do - each and every day. Judas sinned, he chose money and the lure of sin - he did what we all do. Judas’ mistake wasn’t turning his back on Christ. Judas’ mistake was not turning back to Christ having sinned. Judas’ mistake was his refusal to be reconciled with Christ. He made the mistake of thinking he was beyond repentance. He made the mistake of thinking his sin put him outside the sphere of God’s love. He made the mistake we all do. Peter sinned. He denied Christ. He betrayed him. But after the Resurrection he is reconciled with him. He goes on to live out the calling God has placed on his life. He lived the life which God had created for him since before he was in mother’s womb. He turns back to Christ after his denial and betrayal. He never stops believing that God has called him to something greater, that he might be forgiven, that God still loves him and knows how difficult he has made things for himself. God wants us to be like Peter. Tonight we can. We can to turn to him seeking forgiveness. We can admit where we have failed, where we’ve made things difficult for ourselves, where we’ve betrayed Christ and others, where we’ve chosen money and sin. We can believe that God has called us to something greater, that we are not beyond repentance, that he loves us and will always love us. Since before we were born God has loved us with a mother’s love, creating us and caring for us, giving us life and nourishing us. On the cross, he gives us in the beloved disciple an eternal reminder of that love, by giving to us Mary, the Mother of God. ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ When we confess, when we reconcile ourselves to the Lord, we admit we’ve failed, we believe we’re capable of repentance, and we remind ourselves of the eternal fact of God’s love. But what we’re really doing is nothing other than saying simply, ‘God, here I am, warts and all’. And he always responds, ‘Daughter/son. Here, I am’. Whenever we turn back to God, whenever we say ‘here, I am’. He responds with those same words. ‘Here, I am. I've been here all along’.
SPY WEDNESDAY 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. We are in the middle of Holy Week. The shouts and cheers of Palm Sunday are about to be a distant memory. The series of events that lead to the shouts and jeers of Good Friday is about to be set in train. Traditionally today is the day on which Judas agreed to betray Christ to those who will put him to death. Last night we ended by saying that whenever we turn back to God, when ever we say ‘here, I am’. He responds in the same way, ‘Here, I am’. We need to be careful here. It’s bad theology to make God’s presence or activity conditional on our doing the legwork. It's bad theology to say, “If we say yes to God, we’ll be showered with blessings.” “If we believe in Jesus, he’ll put an end to our misery.” “If we trust him, he’ll entrust us with money and happiness”. Our ‘here, I am’ isn’t a magic spell which summons God. God’s ‘here, I am’ isn’t a result of his being summoned like a genie in a bottle. God’s ‘here, I am’ is a reminder of what is always the case. God is always with us, God is always going before us, drawing us to himself. He doesn’t believe in us, because we believe in him. We believe in him, because he has given us belief, he has called us into being. He is more present to us that we can ever be to ourselves. Yet, sometimes, even when we whisper, ‘Here, I am’. God can seem very far away indeed. In the deepest darkest loneliest moments of our lives, we can cry out to God, and instead of hearing the small still voice of calm, God’s gentle and reassuring ‘here, I am’, we hear… nothing. Not a word. We reach out to God, we cling to Christ. And nothing. God seems entirely absent from us. As if he doesn’t exist, as if he hasn’t called us into being. Or worse. Having called us into the misery of life, he’s abandoned us. In our reading from Isaiah, the servant of God is faithful. He refuses to rebel or turn his back on what it is God calls him to do. His reward? Suffering and pain. ‘I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.’ Is this where following God leads us? ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Jesus’ cry of anguish on the cross is shocking. It stops us in our tracks, and calls us to account. Where is God in this? Where is God when following him leads us to suffering and rebuke? Where is God when we cry out to him and hear nothing? When is God where we can’t hear his reassuring ‘here, I am’ and we hear is silence? Disputes about Christ’s presence are nothing compared to those times we’ve felt God’s absence. Where is God in this? ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ ‘Here, I am’. Where is God in this? Before us is the paradox at the heart of the Christian faith. Where is God in Christ’s cries of abandonment? Where is God in our abandonment? Where is God in the midst of the crisis we are living? Where is God in the face of pandemic and disease? Where is God when we cry out and are met only with silence? God is here. Crying out. God hangs on the cross, crying with us, screaming, ‘My God, my God’. If we can’t hear his response it’s because his words are our cries - he is crying with us. His ‘here, I am’, is our cry of pain. In Christ, he cries with us. In Christ he speaks his ultimate, ‘Here, I am with you always’. As that series of events which leads to what happens on Friday has been put in train, we’re about to see what God’s ultimate ‘here, I am’ means. What it meant when God said to us, ‘here, I am’, uniquely and ultimately in Christ. And how we took God’s ‘here, I am’ and put him to death. And how, even in the midst of our abandonment of him, he refuses to abandon us. He refuses to stop saying to us, ‘here, I am’. Even unto death. This is the paradox of faith; God is born as one of us. On the cross, God dies for all of us. On the cross, God cries out with all of us, even when our cries join with his so that all we can hear is silence and all we can feel is pain. God is with us. St Augustine puts the mystery of the Incarnation, God's life as one of us, the mystery at the heart of the Christian faith, better than any of us might: ‘Maker of the sun, He is made under the sun. Disposer of all ages in the bosom of the Father, He consecrates this day in the womb of His mother; in Him He remains, from her He goes forth. Creator of heaven and earth, He was born on earth under heaven. Unspeakably wise, He is wisely speechless; filling the world, He lies in a manger; Ruler of the stars, He nurses at His mother’s bosom. He is both great in the nature of God, and small in the form of a servant, but so that His greatness is not diminished by His smallness, nor His smallness overwhelmed by his greatness. For He did not desert His divine works when He took to Himself human members. Nor did he cease to reach from end to end mightily, and to order all things sweetly, when, having put on the infirmity of the flesh, He was received into the Virgin’s womb, not confined therein. Thus the food of wisdom was not taken away from the angels, and we were to taste how sweet is the Lord.’* Let us taste how sweet is the Lord, as we make our communion with him, as he gives himself for us that we might always remember his eternal ‘here, I am’ to us in Christ. MAUNDY THURSDAY ‘I thirst’ May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Grief is a strange thing. It creeps up on you unawares. It strikes when you least expect it. It plays havoc with your emotions. In a second, a memory of loved one can have you laughing out loud or in floods of tears. And one emotion can quickly give way to another. Weeping is turned to laughing, and laughing to weeping, sometimes in an instant. Tonight we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist, we give thanks to God that at the Last Supper he promised himself to us in bread and wine, whenever we meet together to say Mass, to celebrate the Eucharist. Our celebration is especially poignant this year as we look forward to the day we can meet together once again and share physically and sacramentally in communion, not just the spiritual communion we make together this evening. Whenever we celebrate the Eucharist, the Church remembers the passing of a loved one. ‘We call to mind his death on the cross’. There is an element of grief at the heart of every Eucharist. And this grief is no different. Normally, it quickly turns to joy, as soon as we have remembered his death, we ‘rejoice in his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension’. And our joy at feasting on God in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood quickly overcomes any sadness at his death. Tonight, we are reminded once again that grief is a strange thing. Tonight, our normal pattern of emotions is suddenly turned upside down. We begin with great joy celebrating, truly celebrating Christ’s gift of himself to us each time we hear Mass. Our vestments are gold - a sign of our joy - and our celebration of the Eucharist is exactly that - a celebration. We sing once again of his glory - Glory to God in the Highest! We give thanks to God for this great gift, the gift of himself in bread and in wine. Then, all of a sudden, in an instant. Grief strikes. At the end of Mass, our joy is turned to bitterness. The lightness of our celebration vanishes, and darkness descends. The party’s over. Jesus is arrested. We find ourselves in the turmoil and disarray of the Garden of Gethsemane. Ordinarily we’d strip the Church and wait a while at the altar of repose. This evening you are invited to join with us as we watch the Sacrament until 10pm in silent prayer. Still reeling from this sudden shift of gear, from this abrupt interruption of sorrow, we’re invited to stay a while. To spend as long as you are able with Christ this evening, to choose to prolong our grief at what we know is about to happen to him, to remember our sorrow at the death which we usually pass over all too quickly, to confront that sadness which usually gives way to joy whenever we celebrate the Eucharist. There is sadness in the heart of us all. We all have friends and family we love but see no longer. Loved ones we think about almost every day, those whom we dearly miss. We long to be reminded of their love. We long to be loved. We feel the pain of our separation from loved ones, especially in these days and weeks of isolation. We feel the pain of our separation from God. Tonight, we celebrate. We celebrate that God has overcome that separation in Christ. Christ entered into the pain and sadness and separation, that cuts right to the heart of what it means to be human. He agonises in the garden, he thirsts on the cross. He knows the hunger, and the thirst at the heart of us all. He knows our desire to be loved. Tonight, he invites us to spend some time with him. To enter into his agony, so he might transform ours. As we watch quietly with him in the Sacrament, we unite our grief, our agony, with his. He is with us. As we are present with him in his grief tonight, we come to realise in the midst of all our agony, all our grief, all our longings, and hungers, and thirsts, he is always present. He is always present and turning our world upside down. He enters into and transforms our grief, all grief. He empties himself so that we might be filled, our deepest longings satisfied, our thirst for him quenched. And he asks us to do likewise. He does something very strange to show us this. He gets up from the table, takes off his outer robes, ties a towel around himself and begins to wash his disciples’ feet. In this act, he reminds us of everything he has done for us, and everything he is about to do. He gets down from the table and descends to the dirtiest and lowest parts of our lives. Our sin, our pain, our hurt, our grief, our longing, our hunger, our thirst. He stoops down, and he cleanses, he transforms even that part of ourselves we’re afraid to admit is there. And he asks us to do likewise, to support others in their grief, to walk with others in their pain, to let no-one bear the pain of separation alone, to let no-one be overcome by sadness or the despair of whatever situation they find themselves in, and to make our love of them costly for ourselves, to get ourselves dirty in the process, to put our wealth at the service of the needs of others, to use what little we have to help our brother and sister need. To enter into and transform their agony, as he has entered into and transformed ours. ‘If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.’ Don’t waste these three days. Spend some time with the Lord this evening. Be at the foot of the Cross as his work is finished tomorrow. Meet the women running from the tomb on Saturday. Let the Risen Christ meet you on the way now and always. Offer him that deepest, darkest, dirtiest part of you that you’ve kept quiet or hidden for so long, share your agony with his, realise he is already present to you even in that agony and be transformed. And be ready to transform others. GOOD FRIDAY ‘It is finished’ May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. It is finished. What would our lives look like if we took Jesus’ words at face value? If we really believed that Christ had accomplished all he set out to do. It is finished. There is nothing left to achieve. It is finished. As Christians, there’s always the temptation to think we have to do something in order to win God’s favour. We’ll pray this prayer or we’ll go to Church on that day or pray in this way and God will be on our side. There’s something primal here - don’t make the gods angry. We can tie ourselves in knots, and exhaust ourselves in trying to do something for God, so much so that we end up forgetting the mystery at the heart of our faith. The good news that: ’It is finished’. ‘The strife is o’er the battle done’, as we’ll sing during Easter. Or in the words of Mother Mary Clare to the then-future Archbishop Rowan Williams: ‘You don't have to suffer for the sins of the world, darling. It's been done.’ It’s been done. It is finished. What would our lives look like if we took Jesus’ words at face value? If we really believed that today Christ has saved us. Not someone else. But us. Not another more holy person. But us. Not only if we do this or that to earn his gift of eternal life. He has saved us. We don’t have to suffer for the sins of the world. Today we celebrate, it’s been done. We’re not saved because we do what God wants us to do. We do what God wants us to do because we’re saved. We’re not loved by God because we love God. We love God because we are loved by him. We love because he loves. Today he shows us what love means, where love takes us. Christ on the cross stands before us as the ultimate expression of love - God’s ultimate revelation of himself. Not hearts and roses, flowers and cards, but real love. An essential part of loving is dying to yourself - losing yourself so completely that you somehow become more truly yourself than you ever knew could be possible. To love your neighbour, to lose yourself to them, to pour yourself out in love of God and neighbour. This doesn’t mean we have to do more. In fact, if we lived lives that really believed ‘it is finished’ on the Cross, that this ultimate expression of love means there is nothing more to do. We would end up living lives in which we did rather less, not more. We don’t need to exhaust ourselves doing holy things or taking the suffering of the world on shoulders. We do need to refocus our priorities, reshaping our lives, basing them not on what the world tells us is important, or our vain ambitions and selfish desires, but on love. On what Christ has done for us, which means it really is finished. We would live less to ourselves, and more to God. We would be focusing on ‘doing’ less and loving more. Such lives are exhausting, not because love needs to be exhausting. Not because we need to suffer again or suffer more or do something just because it’s holy and sacrificial and causes us to suffer and therefore makes us feel good about how holy we are. Loving is exhausting because of how the world reacts to this love. Loving is exhausting because living in this way is as much rejected now as it was in Christ. Catholic theologian Herbert McCabe writes of what Jesus shows us today: 'If you love enough you will be killed. Humankind inevitably rejects the only solution to its problem, the solution of love. Human history rejects its own meaning. Humankind is doomed.’ Humankind is doomed. It’s finished. But humankind is not finished. Because it is finished. It’s been done. God’s love toward us is complete on the cross, humankind’s depravity is at its worse - putting to death the very one destined to bring it life. But because it is finished, because there is no end to the lengths God will go to pursue us in his love, not even death will get in his way. Today’s ‘it is finished’ puts an end to death, because God will not be contained by any of the limits we place on him or on ourselves. Today’s ‘it is finished’ means our lives with God have barely even begun. Today’s ‘it is finished’, means today is not the end of the story. ‘It is finished’ is just the beginning of what it means to live with God, to be loved and to love. HOLY SATURDAY 'Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’ May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Alleluia! Christ is Risen! Tonight, the God who created us, recreates us in Christ. Tonight, the God who promised Abraham his descendants would be many, delivers on his promises. Tonight, the God who brought the people of Israel to freedom, frees us from the slavery of death. Tonight, the God who promised Ezekiel he would remove our hearts of stone, pours himself into our hearts, transforms our flesh. Tonight, the God who was crucified in Christ, has killed death. He has died with us, so we might live with him. Tonight, death received a body and encountered that God. Tonight, life defeats death. Tonight, Jesus Christ breaks open all that holds us back, smashes open all our cycles of despair. Tonight, he is going ahead of you; there you will see him. Jesus Christ is going ahead of us; there you will see him. We say we’re followers of Christ, but we don’t often think through what this means. To follow Christ, is to always be playing catch-up. The Christian life is a life of constant catch-up. Catching up to where Christ is already ahead of us, joining in with where Christ has already lead the way. Realising that where we’ve come to, Christ has been all along. Jesus Christ is going ahead of us; there you will see him. Jesus leads us into being. He leads us into new life. He leads us through Good Friday to Easter, from death to life. We can’t escape death. We all have to die. But tonight means that death is never the final word of what it means to be alive. Tonight, we remember where following Christ will lead us. Through death, to life. Death is defeated. Christ has gone ahead of us. And how do we respond? All too often we drag our feet. We’re slow to react. We get distracted, or lazy. We lose sight of where Christ is leading us, where he’s asking us to go. We find ourselves sinking, sliding back into the nothingness out of which Christ calls us. We find ourselves in despair. We don’t live as if life, our true life, is in Christ. We don’t live as if tonight is as the very centre of our lives. Christ’s call gets drowned out by all the other voices in our life, by all the many and important things we have do, all our tasks and obligations, all the ways we fill our time, until we find it hard to hear Christ’s call at all. Tonight, we turn down the volume on all those other voices. Tonight, we hear more clearly the voice of the one calling us by name. And we commit ourselves to follow him - we join in with Christ’s call, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’. Tonight we commit ourselves anew to Christ. We renew our desire to follow him where he is leading us, we commend ourselves to him wherever he is going ahead of us. But, however hard we pray, however sincerely we commend ourselves to him, we’ll soon fail as we try to follow him. We’ll sin, slip up, and stumble on our way. Yet tonight means even here Christ does not abandon us. Tonight, means he smashes open all of our cycles of despair. Tonight, means that even at our lowest, even in the very depths of our despair, Christ meets us. He meets us, and asks us to commit ourselves to him afresh, to be caught up in his risen life, the new life of Easter, and be led to where he wills us to go. With him, one day resurrected to eternal life, and until that day joining in his work, finding our place in his Church which he is always calling to new life. Alleluia! Christ is Risen! Alleluia! He is going ahead of us! Alleluia! Today, let us pray for the grace to follow him, to find our place in his Church, and to share even now in the new life of Easter. As we with all the Church and throughout the ages sing with joy our Easter Praise. Alleluia! Christ is Risen. Alleluia! EASTER DAY
'When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory' words from our second reading, the letter to the Colossians, the 3rd chapter, the 4th verse. What’s the most important thing in your life? What’s really the most important thing in your life? How do you spend your time, your energy, your money? Do you put your “money” where your mouth is? This morning we celebrate the victory of life over death. Christ is Risen. We will be risen. This morning we celebrate that death is not the end. One day we will rise with him. What’s the most important thing in our lives? ‘When Christ who is our life is revealed, then we also will be revealed with him’. What’s the most important thing in our life? Christ. Our life in him, which begins today. Our new life in him, which we join in baptism, feed in the Mass, and which will be ours for eternity in his resurrection - that life, begins today. Are we letting Christ be our life? Or are we letting life, its pressures and fears and anxieties and temptations get in the way? No matter who we are, Christ is our life. ‘God shows no partiality’. Male or female, slave or free, Jewish or Greek, living or dead. Christ is the life of us all. And today, Christ offers us this new life. Today, we celebrate life. The gift of new life offered to us in Christ. Today isn’t about Easter eggs. We don’t get new life because we get chocolate eggs. We get chocolate eggs because we get new life! But even Easter eggs can get in the way, all the pressures of life can get in the way. The new life of Easter means that Christ should be the heart of our celebration today and all we do. Except life so often gets in the way - work, or school, or our family, or money, or bills, or, or, or… The challenge for us is to let Christ be the centre of our celebration and of our entire life. For our minds to be raised above the demands and pressures and day-to-day of just getting by, and to focus on the things which really matter. To take up Christ’s invitation of new life here and now. To ‘set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth… for our life is hidden with Christ in God’. This isn’t easy. When we try to focus on the things that are above, the things that are all around us quickly bring us crashing back to real life. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. The smallest effort on our part, the smallest ways we might nudge Christ into the centre of lives, is taken up by God and magnified. And if we think we’re beyond help, if we think we’re stuck in the busyness of everyday life, that all that will ever matter to us is surviving today, let alone thriving… we fail to realise just what God has done, just what we celebrate today. ‘In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep’ ‘Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.’ The God who created us, who holds us in being, creates us anew in Christ. He delivers us from darkness and offers us new life. He breaks open old orders and divisions, and sends out Mary Magdalene as apostle to apostles, founding the church, this community new life. And if we struggle to take up this new life, if we struggle to lift our minds from the day to day, from all the worries of life - from getting food on the table, paying the bills, bringing up our kids, worrying about our family - we remember that God created all that is, today he defeated even death, he can break us out of whatever struggles we face. All these struggles are temporary. Christ is our life. He wants us to enjoy this new life today. He wants us to enjoy the new life of Easter even now. He gives us himself in this and every Eucharist. He wants us to focus on the important things of life. Our life in him. Our life given to us in this and every Mass. His life in our hands and on our lips. These last days we’ve celebrated Jesus laying down his life, so that we might take up ours with him. Let’s devote this year to making living with Christ the most important thing we do in the whole of our lives. Let’s make him the most important thing in our life. Let’s make coming to Mass, feeding on him the most important thing in our week. Today, Christ rose from the dead. Let’s live that new life to which he rose and to which he calls each and every one of us, today.
Spy Wednesday. St Cyprian’s Clarence Gate Lent 2020 by Fr Jack Noble
The Introit set for Spy Wednesday’s Eucharist (the Wednesday of Holy Week upon which we are reflecting this evening), is a note of triumph ‘at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend of those in heaven and on the earth and under the earth, for the Lord became obedient to death, death on a cross: therefore Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’.
This triumphal song from St Paul’s epistle to the Philippians seems completely inappropriate. Crass even. It jars incongruously with the murky night of shadows which is our subject tonight.
Spy Wednesday is so called because it is the night when Judas slips away to the religious authorities and betrays the Lord. This murky, shadowy night of betrayal, and greed, and power-hungry fear is well named Spy Wednesday.
But the contrast of the events with the triumphant introit given for the Mass of the day, is actually quite right. This sad betrayal will reveal God’s glory. This pathetic death will be a victory. Today reminds us (as we approach the Lord’s passion) of the paradoxes that lie at the heart of our faith, and that we must always hold these strands of truth (death/life, humiliation/glory) in tension. But for all the promise of glory, tonight is a night of shadows. But what of Judas himself?
Some cast him as a ‘Fagin’ figure. Selfish and greedy. Others have suggested that Judas was probably a Zealot, or member of a similar group: radical, political Jewish guerrillas fighting Roman occupation. Judas joined Jesus because the Messiah was due to overthrow Roman rule. As Jesus failed to live up to the Zealots’ vision of an armed liberator, Judas’ resentment blossomed into betrayal. Is that what happened? Some have focussed on the emotional reality for Judas. Despite his friendship with the Mercy and Love Himself, Judas was trapped by resentment or fear.
Greedy slime bag? Disillusioned freedom-fighter? Emotionally stunted and trapped? All have their merits. The trouble with all of these theories is that they let us off the hook. They allow us to diagnose and distance Judas. Put him ‘over there’ away from you and me, good Christian folk over here.
Instead, the power of Spy Wednesday is that it is you and me that are sloping off into the night to orchestrate the Lord’s betrayal. That part of me that I do not let God in to. That part of our world and my life that I would like to keep control of thank you very much, because I know Jesus would have it differently. That part of my life where I seek security in my own wealth, or ability, or identity because I feel safer that way, than giving it whole-heartedly to God.
In lots of different ways, big and small, we operate as little Judases. That is the call of Spy Wednesday. To come out of the shadows and with trust and love give in to the only thing we can really trust in, the only thing that will last forever.
Tonight, we come to Jesus, as Judas did not, and open our hearts (not keep them closed). There is no better place in all the world to do this, than before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. The humility and love and patience we find in Him here is beyond our ability to conceive. No more shadows. Only light.
I’ll finish with this Communion prayer from the Orthodox tradition, on behalf of us all.
I believe, O Lord and confess, that You are truly the Christ, Son of the living God, Who came into this world to save sinners of whom I am the first. O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant of Your Mystical Supper, for I will not speak of this Mystery to Your enemies, nor like Judas will I give You a kiss, but like the penitent thief I confess to You: O Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom. O Master, remember me when You come into Your kingdom. O Holy One, remember me when you come into Your kingdom. Let the partaking of Your Holy Mysteries, O Lord, be not for my judgment or condemnation, but for the healing of my soul and my body. O Lord, I also believe and confess that this, which I am about to receive, is truly Your most precious Body and truly Your life-giving Blood which, I pray, I may worthily receive for the remission of all my sins and for life everlasting. O God, be merciful to me, a sinner. O God, cleanse me of my sins and have mercy on me. O Lord, forgive me, for my sins are many. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sermon preached by Mr John Blackburne (Ordinand & Churchwarden) Enough Trouble for today Sunday Next Before Lent 16th February 2020. Genesis: 1.1-2.3, Romans 8.18-25; Matthew 6:25-34.
‘So do not trouble about tomorrow, tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today’
At the end of January we said goodbye to Father Gerald our pastor for some years; So we find ourselves as a gathered community without a parish priest. In view of Fr Gerald’s impending departure I have been involved as Churchwarden in a number of discussions about the future of this parish. At the first meeting I attended I thought I might be asked about our vision for the future, our plans for mission and possibly the current state of the fabric and the finances? Not a bit of it. The only question I was asked was: What is your USP? ‘USP’ for the uninitiated is a marketing term which means “unique selling point” – “unique selling point” It’s the type of question you might be asked if we were about to embark upon a multi-million pound advertising campaign! As some of you know I have spent the last three years studying Theology at St Augustine’s theological college: We have covered the Old Testament, the New Testament, mission, pastoral theology, parish ministry, doctrine, liturgy, ethics, including a theology of work: So my heart sank as we spent the next hour on this one question about marketing! Don’t get me wrong, I have studied business administration, it is important. And I can see that any organisation needs to consider the deployment of it resources to meet future needs – I get it it’s strategic! And the Diocese has just published it’s 2030 vision – do take a look at it if you have the opportunity – it is important. It’s just that contextually it doesn’t fit into the reflective theological cycle of discernment that have been taught to use at college!
The suggestions about what our unique selling point might be then came thick and fast: The Sherlock Holmes museum, the favourite, Marylebone Station – is that part of our parish? The London Business School – rather more appropriate.
But then what is our unique selling point? It’s not the Church building – splendid though the Comper is, it is not unique? It is not the liturgy - there are other places in London who use a similar rite? It’s not the music - marvellous though that is? So what might it be?
It’s very important that any of us - if challenged – can answer the question what makes St Cyprian’s so special? How are we unique? The modern American theologian Stanley Hauerwas says the first duty of the Church is to be - Church? The first duty of this church, of us as a gathered community, is to be church in this place. What does that mean?
Over the past few months I have been present with you at two baptisms of children with a connection to this place. We have taken part in a sacrament which has cosmic and ontological dimension; In baptism the church teaches that our souls are marked so that we are changed - transformed. And as Saint Paul says that transformation is so radical that we have a new life, we die with Jesus Christ and are raised with him to be part of what he calls the ‘mystical body of Jesus Christ’. You - we are that mystical body in this place we are the unique church in this place; The unique mystical body in this place at this point at this time. It means that those we baptised join us in a history and a narrative - a story in history. And that history begins with our Old Testament reading of today – the story of creation. Our witness is first to the unique promise of God in creation. God created the world and it was good. God’s creation, and the story of the relationship between the people of Israel and God: The faith of Abraham and the covenant and that journey of the people of Israel point towards Jesus as Messiah; And his unique role, not just as our saviour, But as saviour of the world.
St Paul in his letters is very clear that salvation comes alone by faith in Jesus Christ - it is no longer about the rules of the covenant or about any law. But it doesn’t mean that without those rules or law we can do just do just what we like; Paul’s theology comes with a set of values, ethics which point us towards the character of Christ. And that character is now ours by our baptism; Paul says we are the first fruits with Christ of the promise that God has for us. Paul goes even further - we have died with Christ so that those first fruits are a new kind of humanity – resurrected humanity in Christ. We are adopted as children of God and inheritors with him of that vision of the future which is the ultimate intention of God. In the Gospel reading today Jesus turns to the disciples and encourages in them a detachment from material things and earthly pursuits. To explain this Jesus shows how God adorns creation look how he clothes all living creatures. God knows we need to meet our material needs. So try not to be anxious about them – focus on God; And his kingdom and doing your part to bring forward that kingdom and Gods righteousness. We are so well thought of by God that he has our good in his mind and so wants the best for us; So much so that at the end of time we, and the whole of creation will be renewed – brought forward in a new heaven and a new earth. That’s what we mean by eschatology – it’s Gods eye view of creation from beginning to end – and why we need not be anxious about tomorrow. It’s God’s promise for us – to be with Jesus at the end of time in a transformed world where we are to live for ever. Creation, the clothing of creation, to the renewal of creation and our part in that process as Church, at this time and in this place. So if anyone does ask you what is the point of St Cyprians? You are the point, we are the point, a gathered community, dedicated to being church, singing God’s praises in this wonderful space, living as the mystical body of Christ – And then being sent out from here in the power of the Holy Spirit to be the Good News to the world. That’s our USP! Therefore: ‘do not trouble about tomorrow, tomorrow brings worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.’
Sermon for Epiphany 2020 - Fr Michael Fuller Well, that was soon over, wasn’t it? Christmas been and done and gone. I see that Easter eggs are already on sale. But in church Christmas is far from over. In the church year the celebration of the nativity of Jesus marks the start of forty days of festivity, the season of Christmas and Epiphany, the birth of Jesus followed by his presence and person being made public – to shepherds and angels, to wise travellers from the east, by John the Baptist, by the miracle at the wedding in Cana as Jesus turned water into wine so the party could go on. Let’s not rush ahead, let’s savour the delight and the wonder of God with us. Think back, for instance, to the presents you have been given or have watched others receive. Just like the gift-wrapped goodies, Christmas itself comes covered over, not by paper, but by years of tradition and local custom, and sometimes you have to peel away the layers to find what’s inside.
Take the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, for example. The Epiphany hymn we just sang says of them: Sacred gifts of mystic meaning: ‘Incense doth their God disclose, Gold the King of kings proclaimeth, Myrrh His sepulchre foreshows’. One interpretation is that gold shows that Jesus is a king, incense that he is God, worthy of worship, and myrrh, an embalming ointment, foreshadows his death. I don’t reject those ideas, it’s just that they have become so familiar that they might prevent us looking any further, like wrapping paper they might cover up other meanings. Back in the Middle Ages, one of my spiritual heroes, St Bernard of Clairvaux suggested that the gifts were far more practical. Jesus was born in a stable, home to animals which were not house-trained: what could be more useful to counteract the acrid stench of pee, poo and noxious-ness than the fragrance of sweet frankincense? His manger bed was made of straw, sharp, prickly and crawling with bugs. Myrrh would have been the perfect balm to sooth his delicate skin, fresh from the womb. Jesus was born in poverty: Mary and Joseph would have had far more use for gold than some king who already had more than he would ever be able to spend. Straight after the visit of the Magi, the Holy Family had to flee to Egypt to escape from the ruthless tyrant King Herod. Refugees, then as now, find border guards more amenable if they are offered a cash incentive. Traffickers don’t come cheap.
Take the wrapping and glitter from Christmas and you find a Jesus who is born in poverty, dirt and discomfort, a Jesus who is rescued from human violence by refugee parents.
Discard the wrapping so we can see this Jesus, then we can begin to see him also in each of the 12.3 million suffering people in the Yemen today, or the Kurds persecuted by the Syrians and the Turks; you can see Him in the face of people who are poor, marginalised and excluded, in the face of those who suffer. Epiphany reminds us of our hope of a star that leads us. A star which reminded us that our journey had a goal and we must press on towards it through thick and thin.
We glimpse the star and maybe we lose sight of it, perhaps for years, or the star is not much consolation when it is in the heavens and we are down here, where the ways are deep and the weather sharp.
The wondrous thing is that faith tells us that the star is there, and is leading us to somewhere really lovely, to Christ himself, who makes sense of it all and makes it all infinitely worthwhile.
We gather here Sunday by Sunday to worship the Christ-Child, the Saviour of the world; worship that could give us a periodic glimpse of the star, and indeed a foretaste of where it is leading us.
Whilst we try to make our liturgy as meaningful as possible, so that all who share in it may be lifted for a moment up from having our heads buried in our service booklets, from above the camel men cursing and grumbling, and the night-fires always going out on us, the lack of shelters and the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly.
Our liturgy is given to us to keep the star shining in the midst of our pain and bewilderment. Come very close to God once again in this liturgy, for it will sustain us and gladden us on our journey, all the days of our life, until at last, the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
Then before we leave this place this morning face the question, "Where is he that is born King of the Jews? Where is the Son of God, who comes to save us: Where is that Bread of Life for whom our spirits faint?
Faith bids us find him, as it were, in a stable.
Faith bids us find the Word of God in human words; faith bids us taste the very life of God in bread and wine; faith bids us see the Son of God in one another - in the least of these his brothers and sisters to see and to declare his glory shining there.
Our human inclination is ever to lust for the spectacular, the novel, the entertaining, the beguiling. We look for something new and different, some "gimmick", some new recipe that promises what we call success.
But faith forever calls us back, to work out our salvation in the common, everyday life of the Christian fellowship, the disciplined routines of Christian worship, prayer and study, and works of Christian charity.
Christian life is not fundamentally the fevers and chills of emotional excitement: it is the thoughtful learning of the Word of God, day by day, year by year; the nutriment of the Christian sacraments, and the deeds of love and mercy which flow from Christian charity. In the normal, everyday things of the Church's life - the words of Scripture, prayers and sermons, the outward signs of sacraments - the world sees only human words, only poor and common things: halting human speech, a drop of water, fragments of bread and wine, and so on.
But faith has eyes to see in all these things the shining forth, the "Epiphany" of the Son of God, the miracle of God with us, Emmanuel.
And faith has gifts to offer Him; not much, perhaps, in worldly terms, but by His own grace we have that one best gift; acknowledging his divinity, his kingship, and his sacrifice, the gift he treasures most - the gift of adoration, the gift of the humble obedience of mind and heart.
No wise person can offer more, and surely faith cannot offer less than adoration; for to the eyes of faith, the everlasting glory of the Father shines forth in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.
"And we beheld his glory", day by day, we behold his glory, "the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth."
Midnight Mass 2019 - Fr Michael Fuller If you look around this Church at the icons and images you will see Jesus and all the patriarchs, prophets and saints portrayed as blond haired, blue eyed and white skinned. The notable biblical scholar James Charlesworth in his book, ‘The Historical Jesus’ reminds us that Jesus was “most likely dark brown and sun-tanned”. While shades of brown are debated, it is clear that Jesus was not white. The earliest depictions of an adult Jesus showed him with a brown complexion. But by the sixth century, Byzantine artists started portraying Jesus with white skin, a beard and light hair parted down the middle. In the colonial period, we in Europe exported an image of a white Christ worldwide, and a white Jesus often shaped the way Christians understood Jesus’ ministry and mission. Our dominant, white Christian culture has white-washed Jesus. Instead of expanding our understanding of those who are different from us, including many who in fact look more like Jesus than we do, we have replaced them and their stories with a light haired, blue-eyed lie. We didn’t stop at white washing, though. Not only was Jesus not white, he was also, as a Jew, part of a religious and ethnic minority in the Roman Empire. Jews were marginalised by many in the imperial cities. Still today, in our country, we have confused anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism and so still persecute Jews As an infant, Jesus was the target of Herod’s authorised violence and his family fled to Egypt as refugees. Joseph and Mary fled because of the gender of their firstborn. The lives of Jewish boys under age two were threatened by the empire. Jesus was a dark-skinned, religious-minority refugee whose family fled persecution because of his gender. Jesus in the popular imagery of our white religious culture – the light-haired, blue-eyed, untainted, popular evangelist – bears almost no resemblance to the stories about Jesus in the Bible. What we find in our sacred stories is a dark-skinned, dark-eyed, dark-haired Middle Eastern child born amid sexual scandal; ostracised for his family’s religion; persecuted because of his gender; friend to tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners and other outcasts; who grew up in Nazareth, a town little known for nothing. How would we react if we Christians saw a manger scene in every church with dark-skinned refugees? If, as we sang “Silent Night,” we remembered that Jesus with his parents fled from the Middle East to Africa in order to escape persecution for Jesus’ gender? Could we really say hate-filled words about, and advance unfair and cruel treatment of persons different from ourselves? Whether by virtue of social status or economic standing? Would racism continue, would discrimination against LGBT people thrive if those who hate people for no reason knew we follow a coloured Jesus? “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins,” Matthew and Luke tell us. What if the sins Jesus saves us from don’t have anything to do with gender identity, sexual preferences, race or class? Or, more accurately, what if they have everything to do with those distinctions? What if Jesus embodies the groups that are so often marginalised and oppressed? What if Jesus embodies refugee, religious minority, dark skin, poverty, sexual scandal and persecution for gender identity? What if Jesus saves us from our sins of racism, classism anti-Semitism and Islamophobia and other forms of xenophobia? What if the saving grace of Jesus is meant to deliver us from the hell we create with our hate?
Well, my friends the Good News is that we have a God who loves us in spite of who we are, of what prejudices we embrace and of what discriminatory views we hold. Jesus is the messenger of peace, the one who comes to show us God’s love. That Jesus, who was born in a manger, later died on a cross, not save us from those sins, but to show us that there is no limit to love, Jesus came to die for love that we might know that love, live that love, be that love. Tonight, Jesus comes to share that love as a baby and brings with Him a great choir of angels, who proclaim in that beautiful song, the message of love: “Glory to God in the Highest and peace to all people on the earth” Would you like that deep peace in your heart? Yes? Then the only response necessary is, ‘O come to my heart Lord Jesus, there is room in my heart for you’.
Sermon re Brexit preached on 22 September by Fr Michael Fuller
If I were to ask you what is most tedious in our news today, it must surely be Brexit. Well the sad news is that what I wish to speak about today. I will preface this by saying I do not really know what the solution is, but then neither does our government. I would also like to paraphrase something once said by Archbishop William Temple; ‘You may not agree with me nor I with you, but that does not make you or me wrong.’ You will I’m sure all have your own views, I’ll happy learn from them after the service, unless you have a burning desire to stand up and shout out, which seems to be the way debates are held these days. I'm saying that we now need urgently to speak up for Christian values before it is too late. That's a matter that goes well beyond Brexit. But my belief is that Brexit is more than just Brexit, it is itself a symptom of disintegration, the loss of belief in values that once held us together, the falling apart of an association of peoples who were all the stronger because they pooled their sovereignty and pledged to work together for the common good. I find this intellectual and spiritual collapse, which is what I largely think it is, extraordinarily sad. It is understandable that our churches have not wanted to take sides in the Brexit debate. Like Parliament, the churches are as divided as the nation is. The other established church in these islands, the Church of Scotland, has been a conspicuous exception in long championing EU membership. It's always made it clear however that its members personally hold a variety of views and no one is asked to endorse its public position. But I don't think I'm alone in having become dissatisfied with the studied impartiality, which our own Church of England has observed at an official level. There comes a time when it is Laodicean not to make a choice - even if we must also underline strongly that Anglicans don't all see things the same way. Diversity of view on this as on many other issues is affirmed in a broad church like ours and can be healthy. Also remainers ought to remind themselves that there have been some very bad things that have happened as a consequence of our joining the EU. In the same way Brexiteers must be aware of the good things that have resulted in our membership. The problem is that whilst we might listen to opposing views we don’t actually here them. So what ought we to be doing as Christian communities? To my mind, our churches should be drawing on our rich theological and spiritual resources of prophecy and wisdom to put the Brexit controversy into a larger context than nationhood alone. We should offer interpretation that begins not with the "Britain first" mentality but by asking: what might be good for our world? What might support its poorest and most vulnerable people, including our own? How might we fight crime and uphold justice? What might make for reconciliation and peace making in our world and for the conservation and care of our environment? What might Britain with its wealth of experience bring to the family of nations? And even: what might God's perspective be on all these questions? What will the starting point be? It's clear enough in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. When it comes to human life, the Bible summons us to love our neighbours as ourselves. We need to re-read out OT reading from the prophet Amos this morning, for there's no ambiguity about this. So that it can mean that the flourishing of other people should be as prominent in our concerns as our own, and by extension, the welfare of communities, not just individuals. Here's the insight that should challenge these years of self-interested rhetoric about promoting our own wealth by "taking back control". I've always believed that "better together" expresses an ideal of society at its most wholesome. That oft misquoted remark by a previous prime minister that there is ‘no such thing as society,’ not that she actually said that, is not true and all over our country we see acts of generosity, kindness and compassion played out in the name of society. But we have allowed politicians of all hues to persuade us that we needed ‘austerity’ to redress our economic system. We in the City of Westminster want a low council tax, so that we can all be better off, to the detriment of many essential support structures that serve our society. Collaboration, partnership, common purpose is achieved not by coercion but by consent - no nation can survive without them, no church and no community of any kind. That's why our consent to align ourselves with the European Union and play a leading part in its life has served all our nations well in our lifetimes. But now we face the threat of fragmentation wherever we look, not least due to extremist politics that are openly contemptuous of the civilised values most of our post-war generation have grown up with in Europe. If our churches are not one hundred per cent clear about the importance of loving our neighbour, who else is going to be? These things were important to those who launched the European project in the aftermath of war. I would like to if I may, remind you of a statement made in 2017 concerning the Treaty of Rome: “Europe is not a market it is the will to live together. Leaving Europe is not leaving a market it is leaving shared dreams. We can have a common market, but if we do not have common dreams, we have nothing.” Esteban González Pons a Spanish politician, on the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome penned those words. The founders were not all people of explicit faith, but they were deeply influenced by Catholic social teaching about how human beings flourish when they invest in healthy relationships, strong communities and a just, inclusive and equitable society. It took courage to think in that way and perseverance to put its ideals in practice. It was immensely far-sighted. I think it could be argued that it came to fruition - however slowly and fitfully - because of an understanding of humanity based not on economic or political expediency (though that comes into it) but on humane theological values of justice, peace, truth and charity, which in turn derive from the wisdom and goodness of the Creator. Who is speaking nowadays about this founding vision? Some faith leaders aren't afraid to do this as individual men and women. They deserve our gratitude and encouragement because it is often controversial and sometimes costly. But what about our churches as public institutions? Where's the voice of urgency, the spirited engagement in what will affect the future of us all? That's where I'm left feeling despondent. Even-handedness can be a good thing, not least when you can see different sides of a complex question. But now is a time when choices must be made. That's when voices need to be heard that are prophetic, hopeful and wise. So much hangs on decisions made in the coming days and weeks that will irrevocably affect our lives and those of our children and grandchildren for decades to come. I believe that we as Christians ought to be on our knees praying and then rise up to espouse the Christian vision of loving our neighbours.
Sermon for Trinity Sunday from Fr Simon Cuff
Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us words from St Paul’s letter to the Romans, the 5th chapter, the 5th verse. May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s often said that preachers try to do their best to avoid preaching on Trinity Sunday. Any attempt to try to describe the Trinity is doom to fail, and sermons on the Trinity often end up a hotchpotch of heretical images for the doctrine of God which is at the heart of our faith.
Not one to duck a challenge, of course, Fr Michael let me know in good time that he was unable to preach this Sunday. He mentioned on Friday something about washing his hair…
The Trinity is the foundation of all that we are and and all that we do. We meet in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit each and every time we come together to celebrate the Eucharist.
The Trinity is the foundation of all that we are and all that we do, because God is Trinity and God is the foundation of all that we are and all that we do. God is our foundation because God is our creator. God’s act of creation is constant, at every moment, he is creating us, holding us in being, preventing us from slipping back into the nothingness from which all creation comes to be.
This is the first thing that the doctrine of the Trinity teaches us. God is not like us. We are creature. He is creator. We know of nothing that can be simultaneously completely one and completely three. Indeed, in earthly terms it is impossible.
The Trinity reminds us that God is not another thing like us in the created universe. He is not the thing of things, the best thing there is. He is simply God, not an impossible three-in-one, but the ground of all possibility, of all there is.
This isn’t easy to understand. Nor should it be. If our notion of God was simple to understand it simply wouldn’t be God. Images of gods that are easy to understand are all too often idols. Little images of gods we make in our own image.
The Trinity reminds us that whatever God is, however we talk about him, even the best ways we’ve found of talking about him are as nothing compared to the majesty of his glory we’ll experience when we see him face to face.
The Trinity reminds us that God exceeds even our best attempts to think and write and speak and sing about him. Now we think and write and speak and see and sing through a glass darkly.
God is not another thing. God is not like us. God is more glorious than our best thoughts and experiences of him. The Trinity teaches us a lot about what God is not, but what does it teach us about who God is?
The most difficult thing for us to face when we reflect on the doctrine of the Trinity is that it teaches us that God doesn’t need us. Sometimes you hear that God was lonely so God created us and all that is. The Trinity reminds us this is not the case.
God doesn’t create a creature to relate to, like some kind of heavenly Frankenstein.
The Trinity reminds us that God isn’t lonely. Rather he is perfect relationship. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God doesn’t need us. We are created as gift. Sheer and abundant gift. Grace poured out. God’s creation of us, and his love for us, is scandalously unnecessary. Sheer gift.
The Trinity reminds us of what we are called to base our lives on, this gift. It reminds us that our life is sheer gift, and we are called to share that gift, and all our gifts, with others.
Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Three persons, one God. Each person poured out completely toward the other. Each person offered as sheer gift.
We are not three persons in one God. We, each of us, are each confused and fumbling human beings.
Yet the Trinity reminds us how we are to live. To receive the gift of life given to us. To receive God himself poured out for us on the Cross and today in this Sacrament on the altar. To model our lives on that complete and free pouring out of each person of the Trinity toward the other in love.
If the Trinity confuses us, the life which this God of Trinity calls us to is remarkably simple. To live life as he is life. To pour ourselves out in love for those around us. To share all that we have been freely given. To find ourselves caught up in the very love of God himself, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent from Fr Michael Fuller
Realistic. Practical. Sensible. Those are words we all like to use to describe ourselves and our churches.
We are Christians who believe in an amazing story of death and resurrection, but in the end we have to come back down to earth and live in the real world.
Someone has to make sure the budget balances.
This is exactly the attitude of Judas in our gospel story today, the attitude Jesus condemns.
We don’t normally think of ourselves in the same category with Judas. And a great deal of the time, those practical considerations do need to guide our behaviour as individuals and communities.
Jesus profoundly values Mary and her gesture in this gospel. He finds her pouring of fragrant oil over his feet and wiping them with her hair deeply meaningful, and he will not allow this beautiful, intimate moment to be ruined by the mean-spirited practicality of Judas.
What makes Judas even more blameworthy – and even more of a warning to us – is that he overlays his criticism of Mary with a virtuous moral justification. “We could have used that money to serve the poor!” He laments with outward heartfelt piety and inward smug self-righteousness.
Have you ever seen this happen at church? Someone takes the moral high ground, not out of love but because it places them in a position to score points on someone else. “I’m more Christian than you are,” is a game that has no winners.
Jesus saw this and Jesus cuts right through Judas’ posturing. In this moment, Mary and her gesture mean more than Judas and his proposed action.
That’s hard for us action-oriented Brits to take! All the beautiful gestures in the world won’t get the fund raising campaign launched or the church cleaned.
Or will they? Why does Jesus value Mary’s extravagant and loving but essentially useless gesture so much?
Because the things that inspire us to greatness are often exactly that: useless gestures.
I read a great example of that phenomenon this week.
It was the story set in June of 1941, of Dmitri Shostakovich the composer and the head of the Leningrad Conservatory’s piano department. He and millions of others were suddenly uprooted by the surprise bombardment of Leningrad by German forces, breaking the non-aggression pact Hitler had signed with Russia and beginning a siege that would last almost two and a half years.
Although Shostakovich was evacuated, his heart remained with his besieged city, and he began writing what would become the defining work of his career.
His massive Seventh Symphony began to take shape, music that told the story of war and sacrifice and heroism, inspired by and dedicated to Leningrad.
The story is too long to relate now but I suggest you look it up; it’s a harrowing tale.
Shostakovich finished the symphony, and it premiered to worldwide acclaim in Moscow, London, and New York. But Shostakovich knew that the true premiere had not happened yet. The Leningrad Symphony, to truly come to life, had to be played in Leningrad.
Eventually on August 9, 1942, the cobbled together starving orchestra in Leningrad performed the entire Symphony Number 7 for their audience of emaciated but defiant fellow citizens in an epic triumph of the human spirit.
This was the exact date Hitler had boasted he would have a victory dinner in the Hotel Astoria to celebrate conquering Leningrad.
The symphony played by the starving orchestra – is essentially a useless gesture. It did not shorten the siege or provide any food or help defeat the Nazi forces. In fact, three musicians in the orchestra died during the rehearsal period, their lives undoubtedly shortened by having exerted themselves physically to play.
But this useless gesture helped a city beaten down almost to death hold on long enough to be liberated.
And we have to wonder if Mary’s useless gesture in our gospel story today functioned in the same way.
This was Jesus’ farewell dinner with Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany. He knew he was going to his death, and he knew it would not be an easy death.
Mary would soon face the grief of losing her beloved teacher and friend to an unjust, violent execution.
They both had ordeals before them that were on par with or even exceeded what the besieged citizens of Leningrad underwent.
All of us, while perhaps not driven to the extremes that Jesus, Mary, and the Leningraders were, have faced times in our lives where our bodies, minds, and spirits are pushed far beyond what we think we can endure.
These moments when comfort and reason and relief seem like bizarre and foreign concepts happen to all of us.
And what gets us through those moments? Is it the moral pontification of Judas, the building up of our virtuous self-image through studiously practical good works?
No. What helps us survive is the useless gesture, the impractical moment, the unfiltered communication of love and joy and hope that we remember with photographic clarity – the first time our baby smiled at us, the look on our spouse’s face when we exchanged our vows, the warm arms of a parent or grandparent around us as a child.
These small moments of devotion between people who love each other – these useless gestures – they are what sustain our courage when all seems futile, and that is what we see between Jesus and Mary in the gospel.
Because even the great inspiring moments of life, like the Leningrad performance of the 7th Symphony, are made up of a thousand small actions.
The moment that inspired a city to triumph over fascism was in reality built by individuals that rose above what others thought possible.
These are gestures made of love. They are the hearts and spirits of musicians giving the feeble strength of their bodies for their city. And as they gave themselves to create the music, in their minds they didn’t see a vast metropolis. They saw the faces of their children, their parents, their wives and husbands.
When Jesus surrendered himself to the authorities, he did not see the broad sweep of the cosmos he was about to die to save. He saw your face, He saw my face.
So ask yourself: have you made an impractical gesture of love today? Have you done something useless that has no other value than to give of yourself to another?
Search for that chance to make that useless gesture of love, because somewhere down the road, it may save someone’s
A sermon preached by Fr Simon Cuff on the Feast of the Epiphany. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. S. Matthew’s Gospel, the second chapter, beginning to read at the 11th verse. May I speak in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Readings: Isa 60.1-6; Eph 3.1-12; Matt 2.1-12
“Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory. All this was a long time ago, I remember, And I would do it again, but set down This set down This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death.”
These words make up the conclusion of T. S. Eliot’s masterful ‘Journey of the Magi’, no stranger to us here. The genius of Eliot’s poem is to make the visit of the Magi at the birth of Christ a reflection on the meaning of his death for all our deaths.
'Were we led all that way for Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.’
This isn’t poetic license on Eliot’s part. The Scriptural account of the visit of the Magi also combines birth with death. They offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold for kingship, incense as indicator of divine presence and worship; myrrh for the anointing of the dead. These three gifts, when given to the Christ-child sum up the entirety of Christian doctrine. God, born as one of us, reigns on earth as in heaven, and death itself will be defeated by this child.
When we look at our first reading, from Isaiah, prophesying the coming of the gentiles with gifts of gold and frankincense, we see that Eliot takes his lead from St Matthew. The inclusion of myrrh highlights the importance of the death this baby will undergo.
Earlier in the poem, Eliot has one of the magi recounting their journey toward Bethlehem.
‘Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley, Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation; With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness, And three trees on the low sky, And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow. Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel, Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver, And feet kicking the empty wine-skins’.
The imagery is rich. This child’s death hangs over the poem. ‘Three trees on the low sky’ and ‘pieces of silver’ prefigure the betrayal and crucifixion. The 'temperate valley, smelling of vegetation’ the ‘vine leaves over the lintel’ hark back to the beginning of creation itself, and the lush garden of Eden in which we fell. The ‘running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness’ look forward to baptism, our path toward light out of the darkness of this world.
The magi journey toward Bethlehem through a strange land, of empty wine-skins. A land just as moribund as the kingdoms to which they return: these Kingdoms, but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death.’
They come to realise the futility of earthly power, that their kingdoms and worldly positions belong to an age now past, the old dispensation. They look forward to the consummation of all things, ‘another death’. They look forward to the death of the Christ-child they have just paid homage to.
They return home and their world is turned upside down. They glimpse a little of the what Christ comes to accomplish.
Each week in this place, we make a similar journey to the magi. We come here from wherever we live, passing through streets which ring empty with their promise of easy happiness through buying this or consuming that.
We come to the Sacrament, journeying to the altar, to receive what appears to us simply bread and wine only to find something (you may say) satisfactory. We encounter something more, something which satisfies our deepest longings in a way we don’t quite understand.
We come away, back to our places, back to coffee after Mass, back home; each week slightly altered like the Magi.
Everything seems the same, but each week we get the tiniest glimpse of something different. Another way of living, another set of possibilities, another presence in our lives beyond that which the world around us recognises; that world full of people clutching to their gods of this product or that experience.
We return to our places, our homes and our kingdoms, slightly more ill at ease with the world around us, slightly more aware of the Christ-child in our lives. And we ask ourselves, what did we give the Christ-child when we encountered him in that place?
A sermon preached by Fr Simon Cuff on Sunday 29 December 2018 (Christmas 1) After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Words from St Luke’s gospel, the second chapter, the 46th verse. May I speak in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Readings: 1 Samuel 2.18-20,26; Colossians 3.12-17; Luke 2.41-52
They grow up so fast these days. It seemed only on Tuesday that he was newly born, and now he’s twelve and teaching in the Temple. Where do the years ago?
Did you have far too much sherry at Christmas in 2018, and wake up twelve years later? [Ask Fr Michael what happened with the Brexit agreement. You’ll never believe what they did at the last minute…]
We hear about the adolescent Jesus in our Gospel reading, as the lectionary struggles to squeeze Jesus’ lifetime into a year. In a few weeks time, we’ll move to thinking about his baptism as an adult, the temptation, and the start of his public ministry.
In this episode, the twelve-year old Jesus goes missing. Every parents' nightmare. They think he is travelling with them only to find he didn’t set out on the journey with them. The first century equivalent on Home Alone 2.
They rush back to Jerusalem, only to find him in the Temple. When I try to recall this passage from memory, I almost always get the detail wrong.
In my mind’s eye, the youthful Jesus is in the Temple, teaching the religious elders of the day. Telling them what’s what. Sorting right from wrong.
But when we look at the text of St Luke’s Gospel, we see this isn’t exactly what’s going on: ‘they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.’
Even in his youth Jesus teaches not by declaration, but by challenge and enquiry; just as he will throughout his adult ministry:
‘Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am? Whose image is this and whose title? Do you believe this? Who are my mothers and brothers? Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’
St Luke’s account of this episode ends by telling us Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour. St Luke wants us to remember the account of Samuel’s growth in stature we read in our first reading.
Samuel is a child given entirely to the Lord by his mother Hannah. Our Lady’s song, the Magnificat, echoes Hannah’s song earlier in the first book of Samuel. Whereas Hannah’s song is a song which describes what God always does, Mary’s is a hymn of triumph about what God has done in Christ: ‘cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty’.
This child isn’t just a child given by his parents to the Lord.
This child isn’t just a child given by the Lord to his parents.
This child isn’t just a child, but is the Lord himself.
In Christ, God has taken us to himself. In Christ, God has revealed himself to us. In Christ, we learn what true wisdom is.
‘They found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions’.
Wisdom takes nothing for granted. Wisdom searches, challenges, questions received “wisdom”, and the way we do things around here. Wisdom is always open to God's challenge to reform our ways of thinking and being to be more closely aligned with God’s will.
Jesus not only teaches us the path to wisdom by the questions he asks in his day. He not only teaches us that true wisdom comes from careful discernment and diligent questioning of what we’ve come to believe.
Jesus is himself God’s question to us. A challenge to all the ways of thinking and being that we human beings have set up for our selves. He comes to us as one of us, he is rejected by all of us, he dies for all of us, and he rises again to invite us to new ways of thinking and being, to new ways of living the Risen life with him. Being born into poverty, becoming a refugee, dying as a political criminal. Jesus’ entire life is a constant question to worldly ‘wisdom’ and respectable points of view. Jesus ever asks us to question whether our ways of doing things are the way he call us to.
‘They found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions’.
What is Jesus asking us today?
What is Jesus asking of us today?
How are we being called to follow the Wisdom of God in this place? Sermon preached by Fr Michael Fuller at Midnight Mass December 24
I suppose one of the significant changes in the way we see Christmas in this country has been brought about by the Christmas television ads. They start very early in December, if not before, and there seems to be a great competitive spirit about them.
I find after a while their repetition becomes not just a distraction but creates a determination not to shop in that particular Store.
What influence do they really have? Do they inspire us to think more closely about the real significance of Christmas?
I think the one I liked most was the Waitrose ad. The Waitrose ad suggests that there are some things that are too good to wait for but then I realised that not everyone would have seen this because Waitrose is not available nationally.
One ad that the Waitrose ad was based on was the John Lewis one featuring Elton John.
In one of my previous parishes there was an absolute plethora of Class A celebrities. One of these was the amazing Elton John and John Lewis this year has chosen him as their celebrity to promote the Christmas offerings.
Just like the Christmas story itself, this one has divided opinion. We watch time roll backwards down the years, taking some of us down memory lane as we watch Elton John grow younger and younger, until finally we see him as a small boy rushing into a 1950s sitting room where his wrapped gift awaits.
It’s a piano, and he strikes the notes that will launch him on his extraordinary career. And as we see Elton again as he now is, the words say, ‘some gifts are more than a gift.”
Some gifts are indeed more than a gift, and the gift that God sent to the world at Christmas was the gift of a child in a manger. It didn’t look like an event of universal significance – just another child, born on another day in a troubled and uncertain world. But on that day, something began that would be change the world for ever.
Mary, Joseph, shepherds and then kings began to realise that they were at the beginning of something extraordinary: a gift that is more than a gift.
And God’s gift is certainly more than a gift because it is the gift of love.
Because God who made us loved us so much, and God is hurt when we we’re hurting and when we hurt each other, because God suffers when we are in pain.
And God wanted to bring that love to us directly.
It meant that God came to know from the inside what it means to be human.
And what God wanted us to know, personally, was that God loves us. It was like God couldn’t tell us enough. God knew we often don’t listen. God had to prove it.
And this was God’s way.
By tradition, we think of this baby being born in the night. Actually, we don’t know what time of day it was. But in God-speak, the baby was born in the darkness, and the baby brought light into the darkness, and the baby was light, THE light.
And that darkness is all our darkness’s rolled into one: the darkness of pain, the darkness of despair, the darkness of mental anguish, the darkness that all that bad news brings with it.
And the light kindled by that baby born in Bethlehem made a difference. The darkness thinned out like it does when a new day is dawning.
There was hope, there was joy, there was faith and there was love. All these are signs of the light.
This was truly a gift that was more than a gift! I wish you a happy, holy, light filled Christmas, for you and your loved ones.
Sermon preached by Fr Simon Cuff November 4 2018
“Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” words from the book of Deuteronomy, the 6th chapter, beginning to read at the 4th verse. May I speak in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Readings: Deuteronomy 6.1-9; Hebrews 9.11-14; Mark 12.28-34
As a good Catholic, I love ritual. Liturgy and ritual breathes order into the chaos and turmoil of life.
So committed am I to ritual, so devoted to genuflecting, that I’ve found myself on one knee in the aisle of a cinema more than once, surprised that I’m facing Tom Cruise or Judi Dench, and not our Lord on his altar.
Ritual doesn’t just feature in our life at Church. We all have things we do each and every day, at the same time, or on the same day each week. Growing up, one such ritual was coming home from school. Daily arguing with my brother about what we’d watch on television… before settling down to watch my brother’s choice… which was almost always Pokemon. If you’ve not been lucky enough to watch an episode, or play the related game, Pokemon are a whole series of creatures, some cute, some terrifying that the have to be caught and used in battle. To be victorious you ‘Gotta Catch ‘Em All’ - as the series catchphrase went.
Pokemon experienced a resurgence in popularity last year with the release of Pokemon Go! A game for smartphones that let you catch Pokemon all around you. Last week, the Catholic Church released ‘Follow JC go’, inspired by this Pokemon game. Instead of mythical creatures, you’re invited to ‘catch’ the Saints of God, learning about them as you do. ‘Gotta Catch ‘Em All’. Both games are over when you’ve got caught them all - whether Saints or imaginary creatures. Catch them all, and the game is over.
Our reading’s this morning remind us that the Christian life is nothing like Pokemon Go! Or even the Vatican’s ‘Follow JC Go’. Unlike these games, which finish when you’ve caught them all. The Christian life only really gets going when we’ve given God our all, when God has grabbed us for his purposes.
‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might’. Our first reading reminds us what God demands of us. Nothing less than the whole of our selves. All our heart, all our soul, all our might, all our effort, all our skill. All our time. All our money. All our lives.
So total is the demand and so important that the Israelites are commanded to keep these words at the forefront of their minds at all time, literally. They are to bind them on their head, fix them on their hands, write them on their doorposts.
Why? Because it is so easy to forget and to give to God only a little of our heart, only a little of our soul, only a little of our effort, or time, or money, or skill… Often we don’t give to God from the best of what he’s given us, but from the scraps left over. The loose change in our pockets, or the least time we can get away with per week.
But God doesn’t reject the morsel we give. He takes our poor offering and he magnifies it. He makes the most out of the little we give. As our second reading reminds us, he purifies our dead works, and transforms them into the worship of the living God.
We can’t earn our salvation. Life in Christ is free and total gift. We don’t earn our place in heaven because we give more, or work harder for God. This is the message of our Gospel. No amount of ‘burnt offering or sacrifice’ will put us in God’s good books.
God doesn’t love us, because we love him. He doesn’t reward us with stuff, because we give him stuff. It’s the other way round. We love him, because he loved us first. He called us into being. He calls us to this place. He calls us to love him with all our hearts, and with all our souls, and with all our minds, with all our strength, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.
We love him, because he loves us. He shows his love for us by creating us, by dying for us, by giving himself to us even now in this Mass. And he calls us to do the same. To give us ourselves to him, as he has given himself to us. And to make this gift the foundation of the whole of our live.
To be transformed by the love with which he loves us, to be founded on the gift of Christ himself, and to give back to him from the gifts with which he has given us.
“Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength”.
What are you holding back from God?
How is God calling you to respond to his love, poured out for us even now in this place and in this Mass?
What is God asking of you today as you love him with every ounce of your being? Fr Simon Cuff
A Sermon preached on Trinity 9 by Fr Michael on the feeding of the five thousand in John's Gospel.
The Gospel reading for today is probably one of the best known Bible Stories
That story is as a parable to me, revealing a truth that is very real to sincere practitioners of the faith. That a tiny morsel of bread and a sip of wine from a cup can enable us to go home wonderfully full-filled from just a sip from a cup and morsel from a piece of bread.
It is as if we have feasted at a lavish smorgasbord.
That is the sort of thing Jesus does. It is one of his specialities. With a blessing from his hands the little becomes large, the weak become strong, the blind begin to see, the poor become rich, the losers become winners, and the no-bodies become the first citizens in the realm of God.
If we offer to Christ whatever small gifts we have, it will surprise us what he can do with them. It is as simple, yet as profound, as that.
If we are to really experience the truth which threads through this story in John’s Gospel, we must first be open to it. We must allow Christ to become hands on.
We must, like that boy long ago, put our resources into the hands of Christ. There is no way around it.
There are thousands of wistful, religious folk, who have never experienced the beneficence of Jesus.
Because they have never thrust all hesitation aside and committed all they have and are at the disposal of the Lord Jesus. All, I say, nothing held back.
The cautious folk might protest: “But only those who fully believe can commit.” That is not as true as it sounds.
What is truer is this: “Only those who will commit will fully believe.” Repeat: “Only those who commit will fully believe.”
There was an advert on television recently that featured the tourist attractions of the north of Scotland. It sought to induce us to visit that rugged, wild slab of our country, which was, and in many ways still is, largely unspoilt.
This ad insisted: “You’ll never, never know, if you never, never go.”
That, my friends, is spot on. You will never, never know if you never, never go. One cannot experience the expanses, of this great area unless we visit. Films and books will only take us to the edges. You have to be there.
You have to be there.
You will never, never know if you never, never go.
But how much more true is it for the realm of God? That beauty and richness which Jesus taps and releases among us, is amazing.
It is the brave new territory of God to be explored. But you will never, never know if you never, never go to Christ and place your hunger and poverty, together with your few gifts in his strong yet gentle hands.
In industrial relations we hear of “productivity agreements.” Well, my friends, there is no productivity agreement to equal that of a life blessed by Christ Jesus. The saving grace and the enrichment grace of Our Lord can always do “abundantly above all that we can think or ask.”
With Jesus depositing unstintingly, the full time results are much more than wages. Producing high returns for your small investment is not contingent on your input but on God’s infinite resources
What blunt and clumsy tools are human words in this context!
As a Priest, given a privileged position to share the good news, I often become frustrated by the dismal inadequacy of my words.
How can one find words to describe to interested yet hesitant souls the change that Christ can make? How can one explain the mind-boggling, soul-stretching trip on which we find ourselves in His company?
O the wonders of the new territory that opens up for our exploration! The sense of wonder that is evoked in common situations and the glory that is glimpsed in special moments!
That spiritual halo of Divine purpose that surrounds mundane events! The “twelve baskets” that are left over from what you thought was going to be a barren situation!
O God! If only I could find adequate words!
I sometimes wonder whether Jesus felt a similar frustration with words?
Maybe that is why he used his special intellect, his unique genius, to shape those incomparable parables that he told to the people.
His parables are like art works, like the paintings of the masters. In our Lord’s case, his parable-paintings are supreme masterpieces!
Once we really contemplate these masterpieces, they will haunt us all the days of our life, teasing and guiding, confronting and enlightening, healing and ennobling us.
Yet even with Jesus, his brilliant parables were of no avail unless his hearers were ready give the God of Jesus a fair trial.
Unless they were willing to stop prevaricating, then step up and be blessed by the Christ. Only then did they discover that even a smidgen could become a smorgasbord in God’s realm of grace, mercy, peace and joy.
By the grace of God, what was true still is true. The equivalent of a lad’s five barely rolls and two fishes feeding a large crowd, still happens.
Time after time it takes place in the experience of those who are prepared to deposit all that they have and are with Jesus, the only authentic Son of God.
If you are one of those who does not believe any of what I’m saying perhaps you’ll never, never know, if you never, never go.
If you are one of those who looks around the Church and sees nothing but flaws, failings and weaknesses, it’s because you are hungry to be fed with the Living Bread. You don’t realise it because the devil has jaded your soul, you’ll never, never know, if you never, never go.
Please, if you are one of the hesitant ones, take the plunge. Dare to trust Christ, and then it will be party time. With the Lord, life becomes a celebration.
We can dare to laugh, even in hardship. We can dare to celebrate, even in the valley of the shadow of death.
We can become more than we ever were, and grow personally in ways we would not have planned for ourselves.
Delight replaces duty, big steps supplant intentions, and a stumble and a fall are no longer the cause for despair. It is party time!
Time to taste and see that the Lord is good.
But you will “never, never know if you never, never go” to the man from Nazareth and say. “Here I am Lord. Count me in. This is a journey I am not going to miss.”
A sermon preached Sermon preached on the Feast of John the Baptist June 24th 2018 by Fr Michael Fuller
Behind the story of the birth of John the Baptist in St Luke's Gospel there are two stories of silence.
The first story of silence is that of the people of God.
This week to our shame we have seen a collective silence from the people of God. Our world has seen a real-time human rights emergency generated by the elected officials of the United States: many professing to be pro-life and claiming faith in a olive-skinned refugee, Jesus, whilst allowing migrant families to be ripped apart and children to be housed in cages, quoting the Bible while they do it.
If there was ever a time when the Church should have been visible and vocal it should have been now. If there was ever a moment moral leaders were made for it, surely this was one.
In what is considered to be one of the seedbeds of human rights and freedom is where we our spiritual leaders should have stood bravely and speak the hardest of truths and complaints this surely must have been one. It did not happen?
Did our Archbishop condemn the behaviour? Did Pope France’s speak out? Did Iqbal Sacranie, secretary-general, Muslim Council of Britain raise an objection? Was the Chief Rabbi on holiday?
Many of these would-be prophets have been silent. Why? Was it out of cowardice, self-preservation, or worse still, agreement with the sins of that administration?
It is not the churches task to distract us for an hour or so and sidestep the urgency within the world, whether it be in the United States, Syria, or amongst the Rohingya refugees.But there was silence, silence!
In our Gospel story there was the normal noise of the world going on, the markets were bustling, the birds were singing, but there was a difference for them. There was a voice missing from their world. The voice of God had fallen silent for four hundred years. God was not speaking to God’s people.
They reread the promises of Isaiah and the prophets. Rather like we hear from the Old Testament, week after week, of God speaking to God’s people and comforting them, but they were memories, not living experiences.
The second story of silence is that of Zechariah. He and his wife, Elizabeth, were old and childless. There was no way they could have a baby.
Then an angel comes and tells Zechariah that he is to have a son. But he doubts, so he is made deaf and dumb. His silence is total.
He cannot hear the birds singing or speak any words. I reckon that inside, his thoughts were racing, and if he were anything like me he would have been turning over the words of the angel, the words of God, in his mind again and again. The echoes of the voice of God bouncing round his skull in the silence.
Both of these stories of silence meet and are shattered by the cry of newborn baby. For eight days he is nameless. Then the day of circumcision arrives, the day on which this boy is marked as one of the people of God.
He needs a name, his father is silent and so they ask his mother. She surprises them with her choice, “John”. A name meaning God has given, God is gracious, God has shown favour.
But that can’t be right, there is no one in the family called that.
Maybe we’re so overwhelmed by the miracle of this child that we’ve forgotten the proper traditions they think. We’d better check with his Dad. And his dad speaks.
The voice of God that has been echoing round his skull in the silence bursts out of his mouth. “His name is John”. God is gracious. God has given; God has shown favour. God is speaking to God’s people again.
The people are awe struck. The mix of odd events, of an old couple finally having a baby, of Zechariah’s silence, and of this new name fills them with wonder. “What then is this child going to be?”
We know that he was to be the one who spoke to God’s people, calling them to turn back to God. He was the one who pointed to Jesus as God’s ultimate word to God’s people.
John’s birth broke the silence of God and Zechariah, and his life was spent speaking God’s voice into the noise of the world.
I wonder what our story of silence is? What odd combination of events has bought us to this point? What is God saying to us today, where is God’s voice speaking?
What then am I going to be? What then is St Cyprian’s going to be?
Are we going to be those that follow John’s example? Are we willing to be those that bring God’s words to the people? Are we going to break the silence? Are we going to speak out? Are we going to be those that point to Jesus?
With John will we insist that it is not about us, it is always about Jesus?
Will we be the ones that call the people to follow our example and to repent, to turn away from the way that they are living and turn towards God?
That is what I believe that I have been called to; it’s what I believe that all God’s people are called to. To speak out against injustice and speak of Jesus.