Saturday, April 13, 2024

The Greatest Story Ever Told...

Luke 24 v 36-49

We human beings love stories, don’t we? It’s the first thing that we do to our children, when they are old enough to understand even a few words...we read them a story. As we grow older, our stories change - they become more elaborate, more detailed, more complex. Our ancestors told stories around campfires. In our time, we watch movies, or devour Jane Austin novels (well, Clare does, anyway).  

Psychologists tell us something that Holy Men have known for millennia: stories have the power to transform us. As we listen to stories, we ask ourselves questions: “what would it be like to be in that situation?” “How would I get out of that crisis?” “Would I like to become like the person in this story?”.

Like every Holy Man, Jesus also knew the power of story. That’s why he told so many parables. I wonder - have you ever considered the fact that - as far as we know - Jesus never took the trouble to write down a single word of instruction to his followers?  Jesus didn’t leave us a rule-book.  He didn’t write down a precise list of behaviours and instructions he wanted us to follow. Instead he gave us stories. Stories of a wayward son who is greeted with love and acceptance by a father whose love has been abused. Stories of a foreigner who acts as a neighbour. Stories of what happens when we let earthly possessions become more important than heavenly treasure.

But the bible doesn’t just contain stories. It is itself a story - in fact someone once called it ‘the Greatest Story Ever Told’. This story weaves history with myth, poetry with fact; and at each turn of the page we are invited, by the Greatest Story-teller, to put ourselves in the place of each character. “Does this story reflect my circumstances? What can I learn from how the character resolved this particular situation?”

Today’s Gospel reading is no exception. Let’s see if we can’t follow that ancient practice of putting ourselves into the story.  Let’s see if we can perhaps make some connections between the reading, and our own circumstances...

The first thing I want to observe is that, throughout this story, the Disciples are at a pivotal point in their own lives, and in the history of the church. On the one hand, Jesus death is behind them...he has visibly triumphed over the grave. But on the other hand, the hard work of establishing the church is still ahead of them.

I think we can say that there are some parallels between the disciples’ situation and ours. Certainly there have been some difficult days in our fairly recent past. And certainly, there is a great deal of work still to be done before the Kingdom is fully established in Havant.  Faith in the UK is on the wane, and yet people need God more than ever before.  We faithful few who gather on a Sunday are a tiny minority of our community – just as the disciples were a tiny minority of theirs.  We too, then, are at a pivotal point in our history...just like the disciples.

The next thing I noticed, when I looked more closely at this story was that when Jesus appeared to his disciples, his behaviour towards them was pretty surprising.  These were the disciples who had abandoned him, denied him, and run away and hidden while he was being crucified.  You would have thought that the first thing he would have said to them would be something like, “where were you then?”.  You might have expected Jesus to insist that everyone in that room should have got down on one knee and begged for forgiveness. But no. Jesus reaction to seeing those who had hurt him in the past was a very simple one. “Peace be with you”.

Peace be with you. Four simple words...but four words which convey a Universe of meaning. Four words which offer forgiveness, even without apology. Four words which acknowledge that all human beings get things wrong sometimes. Four words which show more than any other how God deals with those who have hurt him, those who have wronged him, denied him, deserted him...he offers them peace.  That’s the kind of God we serve.

The next thing I notice, is that the disciples were given a message to preach. Verse 47: “...in his name the message about repentance and the forgiveness of sins must be preached to all nations...” Having revealed himself to them, having clearly forgiven them, Jesus sent them out into the world to preach his message of the topsy turvey kingdom. The disciples were charged with a story to tell - a story which we have inherited and which we are commanded to tell as well. It’s a story about the Lord of the Universe who is born in a stable. It’s a story about the King of the Ages, who rides on a donkey. It’s a story about a God who dies, so that his creation can have life. It’s a topsy turvey story. It’s a story about how the followers of this God, who have received his forgiveness, go on to offer that forgiveness to other people.

Finally - the last thing I notice about this story - is that the Disciples are promised the Spirit of God. Verse 49: “I myself will send upon you what my Father has promised. But you must wait in the city until the power from above comes on you.” Of course, we know that this promise was fulfilled. We know the story of the day of Pentecost. But the disciples didn’t know. All they could do was trust...trust that the story would come true... Trust that the story-teller was reliable.

And that, finally, is what we must do to.  We must trust in the story. As we go forward into the future, as a parish, as families, as individuals, we need to trust that the story we are living will have a happy ending.  The Bible, the “Greatest Story Ever Told” concludes with a vision of a new heaven and a new earth.  It’s story with a happy ending that we are, already in many ways living out. The promise of this story is that if we will hold on to the story-teller, if we will live as the story-teller invites us to live,  if we will draw from the same source as the story-teller - then there is a promise of life everlasting, life to the full, life in all its fullness, for ever.  That’s a story worth telling. Isn’t it?


Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Believe? Even the Devil believes!

Text: John 3.31 end

John the baptiser speaks about Jesus, and about the need to have faith in him

"The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is above all.  He testifies to what he has seen and heard, yet no one accepts his testimony.   Whoever has accepted his testimony has certified this, that God is true.   He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure.  The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands.  Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath."

The words we’ve just heard come from John the Baptiser.  Some of his disciples have noticed that Jesus has started his ministry, and has been baptising followers.  They wonder how John feels about Jesus effectively muscling-in on his ministry.

John is not concerned – at all.  He recognises Jesus for who he is.  John knows that his role was only ever to pave the way for Jesus.  He recognises that Jesus was sent by God – and he draws a comparision between himself and Jesus.  He says, “The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things.”  Of course, John means that he is the one who comes from earth (and only speaks about earthly things).  Jesus, on the other hand, comes from heaven.    

Then, after speaking about how Jesus speaks the words of God, mediated by the Spirit, John utters these memorable words: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.”  These words echo the phrase that Jesus himself uses, a few verses earlier, in that famous line which is included among the comfortable words of this communion service: “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him shall have everlasting life”.

So, for both Jesus and John, the issue of belief is uttermost.  If you have belief in Jesus, you will have everlasting life. That’s the promise. But what does it mean, to have belief?

If I believe that Jesus is the Son of God the same way that I believe that King Charles is our nation’s monarch, have I fulfilled the conditions needed to be saved?  Is it enough to simply accept, intellectually, that Jesus is the son of God? Or is there more to belief than that?

We know that just accepting the proposition that Jesus is God’s son is, in fact, not enough - because even the devil believes that.  When Jesus began to confront the demonic powers of the devil, they cried out loud, "We know who you are. You are the holy one of God. You are the Son of God."   You see, the devil of the Bible is absolutely orthodox in his belief in who Jesus was.  

So, what more is required of us, if we aim to receive the gift of eternal life? The image of the devil stands for complete self-obsession.  The devil is that part of us which can see the inherent good in Jesus, but which rejects what Jesus says, in favour of our own choices.  The image of the devil is the one who places his own worth, his own opinions, his own destiny, above and instead of the worth that God offers us as a son or daughter.  The devil rejects the teachings of Christ, he rejects The Narrow Way of trust in Christ.  The devil does not view God as precious and valuable. He hates Christ and Christ is a threat to everything he stands for.

Instead, we find our Narrow Way to eternal life by delighting in our belief that Jesus is the Son of God.  We embrace it, and we make Christ the treasure and the Lord of our life, by surrendering completely to him. Unlike the metaphorical devil, we find that we just want to know Jesus, be with him, enjoy him, follow him, and celebrate him. That transition—that change of heart, so that we are now looking away from our demonic self-centredness, towards Christ and embracing all that God is for us in him—that is what faith is. That is what belief is. That is what saves.

For the apostles, as we saw in our lesson from the 5th chapter of Acts (Acts 5.27–33), that meant being prepared to stand trial for Jesus.  It meant imprisonment and persecution for standing up against the violent powers of their day.  It meant being utterly committed to the life-giving Narrow Way of Christ, regardless of the cost.  Oh that we could find such belief, such trust, such devotion to the way of Christ! Amen.

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Easter Thursday

Easter Thursday 2024 - (Slightly reworked from Easter Sunday)

Easter means many different things to many different people.  A sign of new life.  The defeat of darkness.  I like to help our school visitors to remember that the word Easter contains the word East.  We look to the East, to the rising Sun, to remember the Son who rises.   Or perhaps the word Easter is based on the pagan goddess Eostre (that’s what the 7th century historian Bede believed – although later scholars have debunked him).   It is therefore, perhaps, a celebration of the return of the sun, with all the fecundity of new life, celebrated through bunny rabbits and eggs.  What do you believe, I wonder?

It turns out that what we believe is a rather subjective thing.  And when beliefs clash, things can get pretty dicey, as we’ve seen horrifically in Gaza of late. What we believe about the death and resurrection of Jesus matters.  But in our incredible shrinking world, we are bombarded with competing truth claims. 

There are of course a whole range of views about the actual truth of the Resurrection.  Frankly, we cannot tackle the sceptics’ questions with anything other than the answer of faith.  We were not there, and all we have is the rather variable accounts of those who wrote about these events some decades later.  What matters most, to all followers of The Way, is NOT whether something HAPPENED, but that it HAPPENS, still, today.  In others words, all of the stories of Scripture have the power to speak into our lives, right here and right now.  There is truth within every story, whether or not it can be scientifically or historically proved.  The deep truth of each story happens to us, today, if we will open ourselves to it.

There is one historical fact on which we can rely – and that’s that the ancients who wrote our Scriptures were much less concerned about literal, historical truth than we tend to be.  They were much more concerned with the power of story – its inner power, its deeper truth, its potential to shape and direct our lives.  So when the Gospel writers tell us of the death of Jesus, they are pointing to a deeper truth…which is that God died.  This is a way of saying there is no situation which God cannot inhabit and embrace.  Even in death, God holds us, walks with us, along our human road.

But the Gospel writers are also warning us – that there are consequences to excluding Jesus from any community’s life.  By ignoring him, and his wisdom, we effectively shove Jesus out of our City, out of our society, out of our politics.  We abandon him to die on a lonely hill, outside the city.

The resurrection story, on the other hand, points us to the rejuvenating potential of all life, in and through God.  Even if we push him outside our City, God cannot be kept out.

St Paul used the example of a seed, pointing out that just as Jesus died and then rose, so a seed has to die in the soil before it is transformed into a mighty tree.  In doing so, Paul points us to an even deeper reality than the miracle of raising Jesus from the dead. 

Paul teaches us a truth that science has since proved to us: the fundamental truth that all matter in God’s universe is constantly in flux, constantly being reshaped and reformed and given new life.  Dust from the Big Bang coalesces into stars, from which new elements are then blasted out into space.  Those elements get formed into planets, and new suns, from which we and all life finally emerge.  

The even deeper truth of the Resurrection is that as the divine presence behind all the universe, God also transcends creation.  God calls us beyond creation, into a realm as yet undiscovered by science; the realm we call the kingdom of heaven.  The resurrection then, as the infamous David Jenkins, Bishop of Durham once said, is more than a ‘conjuring trick with bones’.  It points us to a deeper and more profound reality – the reality that the life God gives to the Universe never stops being created and recreated anew.  Out of all deaths comes new life.  Life goes on, constantly being reshaped and reborn, and even drawn into new realities, new realms, whatever Death tries to do.  And so with St Paul, we can indeed stick out tongues out at death, and cry ‘Where, O Death, is thy sting?  Where, O grave is thy victory?’. 

But what does this mean, for you, and for me?  It surely means that there is no situation in life, no state of mind, no great human conflict, no failure, no sin, no level of depression, no Gazan famine, no Russian invasion, no family-member’s death, which cannot be transformed by the power of the Kingdom of God.  The great myth and the mystery of God is alive, among us, constantly calling us to resurrection – to the reforming, and the transforming, of human-made misery into new life and new possibility.  

Can we imagine a world in which guns are melted down to make tractors?  Can we imagine a world in which we spend more on healthcare and research than on weapons? Can we imagine a world in which there are no poor among us?  Can we imagine a world in which the mighty and the corrupt are voted out of their seats, and the meek and humble take their place?  For those are precisely what the Bible imagines, when it uses the metaphor of the Kingdom of God.

This then is the deeper truth of the Resurrection – a truth that goes beyond the sceptical questions we might have about the fuzzy, competing biblical stories.  The resurrection shows us Creation, and re-creation, through God’s eternal eyes.  Indeed, the whole trajectory of Scripture is that all life, all creation, all re-creation and re-birth finds its culmination in the Divine energy at Creation’s heart, and in the person of Jesus Christ. 

For it is before him, as the closing chapters of the Bible declare, that one day every knee will bow.  Every tongue will confess that Jesus, the divine man, the God made human who finds his way back to eternity, and draws us with him into the as yet unseen realm of the Kingdom of heaven: HE is LORD, and rightly the source of our joy, when we declare….Alleluia...Christ is Risen!  He is risen indeed, Alleluia!


Easter 2024

 Easter 2024

Easter means many different things to many different people.  A sign of new life.  The defeat of darkness.  I like to help our school visitors to remember that the word Easter contains the word East.  We look to the East, to the rising Sun, to remember the Son who rises.   Or perhaps the word Easter is based on the pagan goddess Eostre (that’s what the 7th century historian Bede believed – although later scholars have debunked him).   It is therefore, perhaps, a celebration of the return of the sun, with all the fecundity of new life, celebrated through bunny rabbits and eggs.  What do you believe, I wonder?

It turns out that what we believe is a rather subjective thing.  And when beliefs clash, things can get pretty dicey, as we’ve seen horrifically in Gaza of late. What we believe about the death and resurrection of Jesus matters.  But in our incredible shrinking world, we are bombarded with competing truth claims. 

On Good Friday, during the reading of the St John Passion, we heard how Pilate asked Jesus, philosophically, “what IS truth?”.  Even then, 2000 years ago, there were many different truth claims in the world.  How shall we peel away the layers of history, myth, belief and story, to arrive at a truth that matters; a truth we can live by?

There are of course a whole range of views about the actual truth of the Resurrection.  Frankly, we cannot tackle the sceptics’ questions with anything other than the answer of faith.  We were not there, and all we have is the rather variable accounts of those who wrote about these events some decades later.  I wonder if you’ve ever sat down and read the four gospel accounts of the Resurrection, back to back.  I challenge you to do so – and to note, as you do, the marked differences between each Gospel’s account.  Those differences alone are enough to make one a little sceptical about the historicity of the story.

What matters most, to all followers of The Way, is not whether or not something HAPPENED, but that it HAPPENS, still, today.  In others words, all of the stories of Scripture have the power to speak into our lives, right here and right now.  There is truth within every story, whether or not it can be scientifically or historically proved.

There is one historical fact on which we can rely – and that’s that the ancients who wrote our Scriptures were much less concerned about literal, historical truth than we tend to be.  They were much more concerned with the power of story – its inner power, its deeper truth, its potential to shape and direct our lives.  So when the Gospel writers tell us of the death of Jesus, they are pointing to a deeper truth…which is that God died.  This is a way of saying there is no situation which God cannot inhabit and embrace.  Even in death, God holds us, walks with us, along our human road.

The resurrection story, on the other hand, points us to the rejuvenating potential of all life, in and through God.  

St Paul used the example of a seed, pointing out that just as Jesus died and then rose, so a seed has to die in the soil before it is transformed into a mighty tree.  In doing so, Paul points us to an even deeper reality than the miracle of raising Jesus from the dead. 

Paul teaches us a truth that science has since proved to us: the fundamental truth that all matter in God’s universe is constantly in flux, constantly being reshaped and reformed and given new life.  Dust from the Big Bang coalesces into stars, from which new elements are then blasted out into space.  Those elements get formed into planets, and new suns, from which we and all life finally emerge.  Our own bodies, when we’ve finished with them, are absorbed back into the earth, and become nutrients for the creation of new life.  One day, science teaches us, our world will be consumed by our Sun, which will then explode into space, and our dust will be gathered by the forces of gravity into a new existence, from which new life can once more emerge.

The even deeper truth of the Resurrection is that as the divine presence behind all the universe, God also transcends creation.  God calls us beyond creation, into a realm as yet undiscovered by science; the realm we call the kingdom of heaven.  The resurrection then, as the infamous David Jenkins, Bishop of Durham once said, is more than a ‘conjuring trick with bones’.  It points us to a deeper and more profound reality – the reality that the life God gives to the Universe never stops being created and recreated anew.  Out of all deaths comes new life.  Life goes on, constantly being reshaped and reborn, and even drawn into new realities, new realms, whatever Death tries to do.  And so with St Paul, we can indeed stick out tongues out at death, and cry ‘Where, O Death, is thy sting?  Where, O grave is thy victory?’. 

But what does this mean, for you, and for me?  It surely means that there is no situation in life, no state of mind, no great human conflict, no failure, no sin, no level of depression, no Gazan famine, no Russian invasion, no family-member’s death, which cannot be transformed by the power of the Kingdom of God.  The great myth and the mystery of God is alive, among us, constantly calling us to resurrection – to the reforming, and the transforming, of human-made misery into new life and new possibility.  

Can we imagine a world in which guns are melted down to make tractors?  Can we imagine a world in which we spend more on healthcare and research than on weapons? Can we imagine a world in which there are no poor among us?  Can we imagine a world in which the mighty and the corrupt are voted out of their seats, and the meek and humble take their place?  For those are precisely what the Bible imagines, when it uses the metaphor of the Kingdom of God.

This then is the deeper truth of the Resurrection – a truth that goes beyond the sceptical questions we might have about the fuzzy, competing biblical stories.  The resurrection shows us Creation, and re-creation, through God’s eternal eyes.  Indeed, the whole trajectory of Scripture is that all life, all creation, all re-creation and re-birth finds its culmination in the Divine energy at Creation’s heart, and in the person of Jesus Christ. 

For it is before him, as the closing chapters of the Bible declare, that one day every knee will bow.  Every tongue will confess that Jesus, the divine man, the God made human who finds his way back to eternity, and draws us with him into the as yet unseen realm of the Kingdom of heaven: HE is LORD, and rightly the source of our joy, when we declare….Alleluia...Christ is Risen!  He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Maundy Meanings

Maundy Thursday is one of those feast days that carry a lot of meaning.  Layer upon layer of meaning, in fact.  So depending on whether you’ve chosen to sit on one the comfortable new pews, or one of the old rickety chairs, this extra-long sermon is going to be either a great pleasure, or a great pain!

Let’s deal with the word – first.  ‘Maundy’ is said to come from the Latin ‘mandate’ – or command.  It refers to verse 34 of tonight’s Gospel reading, when Jesus commands that we should love one another, just as he has loved us – by serving each other.

Another suggestion that ‘maundy’ derives from the French, ‘mendier’ (pronounced ‘maundy-ay’) – meaning ‘to beg’.  It remembers a time when Monarchs and Lords would distribute charity to beggars, on their way to the celebration of the institution of the Last Supper.  The distribution of Maundy Money at Worcestshire Cathedral by the Queen, on behalf of His Majesty, is an echo of that practice.  I can’t say that I like the idea of monarchs and lords dispensing charity to beggars on their way to church.  It feels a bit to much like ‘trickle-down’ economics to me.  But today’s practice of Maundy Money does at least honour the service that its recipients have given.

Another grand tradition of Maundy Thursday is that Bishops perform the Chrism Mass – during which Holy Oils are blessed and distributed to parish churches for use in baptism, confirmation and healing ceremonies throughout the year.  The oils, blessed by the Bishop, are a sign of that our little parish church is part of a much larger family – the Diocesan family, under the headship of our Diocesan Bishop, Jonathan.   This morning, clergy from the around the diocese gathered with Bishop Jonathan in the cathedral – including clergy from the Isle of Wight who looked a little bit grreen in the gills, considering the windy weather.

But Maundy Money, and the Chrism Mass are really just peripheral issues to the main purpose of Maundy Thursday.  The proper title for the day is ‘The Feast of the Institution of the Lord’s Supper’ – or the Holy Communion – or the Mass – or the Eucharist.  Whatever your preference is!  Together, we are invited to reflect more deeply on the deep significance of the service that stands at the heart of our worship, week by week.  It’s a good opportunity because, whilst we celebrate the Lord’s Supper at least twice a week at St Faith’s, its deep meaning can sometimes be lost among other theological ideas which are being expressed or explored during those services.

Maundy Thursday is our chance to strip away such distractions, and focus on what Jesus was trying to convey to his disciples on that “last night, before he was betrayed”.   The readings we’ve just heard convey to us that there are many layers of meaning, depending upon on whose account of the event we focus. 

According to Paul’s account, the significance of the Last Supper was undoubtedly the symbolic offering of bread and wine, by Jesus, as symbols and signs of his body and blood. Jesus said ‘do this in remembrance of me’ – and perhaps we should focus for a moment on that word ‘remember’.  Our ‘members’ are our limbs, our organs; the parts of our body.  When we talk about being ‘members’ of a club or a church, we’re talking about individual people.  To ‘re-member’ something, then, is to bring together, in our minds eye, separate body parts, or people, into one collective whole.  

In remembering Jesus, we are invited to draw together all that we know about him…all that we love about him.  We remember the totality of his life, teaching and example.  We draw hope and inspiration from his death on the cross, where his life was ‘poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’, whatever that phrase may mean, theologically.  We bring these and many other remembrances together in our minds, prompted by the beautifully simple words, ‘this is my body’.  ‘This is my blood’. ‘Do this in remembrance of me’.

And there’s more!  We don’t just bring Christ together in our minds, we also come together to do this act of obedience and worship.  The church has long-since taught that if I were to celebrate the Eucharist on my own, in splendid isolation, it would not be a valid Eucharist.  We believe that Jesus intended the Lord’s Supper to be an essentially communal act.  This is something we do together.  We literally ‘re-member’, bring together, the living members of the body of Christ, every time we enact this service.

Today, we are also offered John’s account of this famous last supper.  Intriguingly, John (the most theological writer of the Gospels) makes no mention of the words of Institution at all.   Instead, John re-members how Jesus started the whole evening off, by washing his disciples’ feet.

In doing so, John shifts our focus.  He wants us to perhaps focus a little less on what we might personally receive from the Eucharist. I think John might not have approved of those Christians who even today talk about ‘making MY communion’.  Instead, John invites us think about what we might give as a result of the Eucharist.  John tells us the story of Jesus washing his disciples feet.  He prompts us to ask what service WE can offer to the world that Jesus calls us to transform in his name.

What if John’s Gospel was the only one we had?  How different would the church be if our primary ceremony was not the receiving of bread and wine, but rather the washing of each other’s feet.   What if our most prized possessions, as a church, were not a silver chalice and patten, or even a cross, but a jug of water and a towel?  What message might that communicate to the wider world about our mission to Love God, and love our neighbours?

So, Maundy Thursday comes at us with a blizzard of meanings.  I hope these last few minutes have opened up some of them.  But Maundy Thursday hasn’t quite finished with us yet!  At the end of this service, we will strip the Altar bare, and carry off the consecrated body of Christ into the lonely seclusion of the Lady Chapel.  By doing so, we will remember how Jesus was himself carried away from his disciples.  How bereft must they have felt?  How lost, how frightened they must have been!  Perhaps this loneliness might remind us of those we know who are feeling lonely and lost tonight.  Perhaps we might reach out to them, wash their feet, metaphorically, and offer them a touch of God, and sense of communion too?  Amen. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

On the feast of Thomas Cranmer

 Today we remember Thomas Cranmer, author of the prayer book whose words we still use, Thursday by Thursday in this place.   Born in Nottinghamshire in 1489, Cranmer was recruited for diplomatic service in 1527. Two years later he joined the team working to annul Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He was made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533 and duly pronounced the Aragon marriage annulled. After the death of Henry VIII, Cranmer became a chief architect of Edwardian religious change, constructing two editions of the Book of Common Prayer, in 1549 and 1552, and the original version of what would later become the Thirty-Nine Articles.

Following King Edward’s short reign, Queen Mary’s regime convicted Cranmer of treason in 1553 and of heresy in 1554. Demoralized by imprisonment, he signed six recantations, but was still condemned to the stake at Oxford – where the position of his martyrdom is still marked in the street.  Struggling with his conscience, he made a final, bold statement of Protestant faith. Cranmer was an impressively learned scholar, and his genius for formal prose has left a lasting mark on Anglican liturgy. He was burnt at the stake on this day in the year 1556.

Cranmer, like his colleagues Latimer and Ridley were burned at the stake by a Catholic monarchs in the turbulent years following Henry VIII.  But we should also remember the often unnamed Roman priests who hid within, and were sometimes forcibly dragged from, secret closets in the great Catholic houses of the land.  Both sides in this horrible period of English history had men and women of great courage, who lived by the light they had been given at the time.  They believed earnestly in the central tenants of their faith, and earnestly believed, whether they were Anglican Catholics, or Roman Catholics, that their particular expression of the church was the right one.  It was a belief for which they were prepared to die, and yes, sometimes to kill.

We are recognising, therefore, that there was true Godliness and great courage in martyrs on both sides of that divide.  But we also recognise that there was terrible error and great evil committed by those who ordered the martyrdoms on both sides!  The only way that we can confront these two opposing truths is with humility. 

First, we are invited to personal humility, as we stand in awe of the strength of faith, the holiness and courage of those who witnessed to their understanding of God right up to the point of death.  Would I, would you, have the courage to do the same? 

However, we also need to express some corporate humility too:  for all the times that condemnation has turned to violence, of either the physical or verbal kind.  In the Reformation Era, there was a see-sawing of religious life in England at the time, as one monarch replaced another, and the balance of power shifted between Anglicans and Romans, depending who was on the throne.  In those swings of power and opinion, it is frightening to remember how quickly the oppressed became the oppressor.  How quickly zeal turned into hatred and then violence.

The Reformation, in that sense, is a stark warning to theological warriors of today.  Arm-chair theologians, as well as many pressure groups within the church, still argue with each other about what God thinks is ‘right’ on any number of issues.  Christian social media is sometimes a very nasty place. Everyone has their own opinion on a wide range of subjects. These range from which political party is nearer to the Kingdom of God (a good question for Election Day!) to vexed questions around human sexuality.  Or Christians love to debate the question of a woman’s right to choose, the correct mode of dress for priests.  These are all important topics, (and there are many more like them) that inspire real vitriol.  There are, for example, large parts of the Anglican Communion who are presently pulling away from Canterbury, over recent decisions of the Synod around the blessing of same-sex marriages.  Oh to have their sense of utter certainty!

The hardest lesson to learn in these debates is the lesson of humility.  It’s salutary to remember that Jesus himself never wrote down a single word.  Instead, he spoke in stories and parables, designed to creatively expand our thinking and often leading us to ask more questions.  We have taken The Word, the Logos, the creative speaking of God, and turned it into logical, rule-bound, codified letters on a page.  And we use them to batter our theological and intellectual opponents.

So to those who, with their left brain, want to nail their theological opinions to a stake, I urge the lesson of humility.  Sometimes, the most honest answer to the great questions of our age has to be ‘we don’t know’.  God’s Kingdom is not yet fully revealed, and our ability to understand the mind of God is limited at best.  At the very least, we need to grasp that when we offer our opinion on matters such as sexuality, political alliances, abortion, the monarchy or any number of other weighty matters, we must do so in a spirit of humility.  And, unlike the warring theologians of the English Reformation, we must never, never, never, offer violence in word or deed, to those with whom we might disagree.

Amen.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

A Sermon for St Patrick

 A sermon for St Patrick's Day

(St Patrick's Day is 17 March.  He is believed to have died on that day in the year 461 C.E.)

 

Kennar is supposedly an Irish name.  Although as Rex likes to remind me – it is also Welsh.  It might also interest you to know that the name Kenner has possible German/Jewish roots, coming from the root word ‘to know’ – to ‘ken’. Perhaps you remember the old song ‘Do ye ken John Peel’?

Apparently the name ‘Kenner’ was sometimes used as an insult.  A ‘ken-ner’ was a ‘know-er’ – or as we might say, a ‘know-it-all’!  Since that description couldn’t possibly apply to me, I’m going to stick with the idea that Kennar has Irish roots – especially on St Patrick’s day.

As with so many ancient saints, and like my own misty ancestry, it is difficult to get to the actual truth about Patrick.  One thing we can say, with some certainty, is that he was not born an Irishman.  Which is fun to point out to Irishmen.  As much fun as pointing out to Englishmen that St George was Turkish, and to Scotsmen that St Andrew was Jewish.  In fact, the only Patron Saint of the British Isles who was actually born in the land they represent was St David.  As Rex surely knows.

All the ancient writings about St Patrick agree that he was a Roman-Briton born in about the year 390 of Christian parents in the latter years of the Roman Empire in Britain. The exact place of his birth has never been identified. Claims from places in West Britain as far apart as Dumbarton and Cornwall have been made; but present day opinion favours the neighbourhood of Carlisle.

It is said that he was captured by Irish raiders when he was sixteen years old and taken to Ireland as a slave. After six years of caring for animals, he escaped and seems to have gone to continental Europe. He eventually found his way back to his own family, where his nominal Christian faith grew and matured. He returned to Gaul and was there trained as a priest and much influenced by the form of monasticism evolving under Martin of Tours. When he was in his early forties, he returned to Ireland as a bishop, ministering first at Saul near Downpatrick, and later making his base at Armagh, which became the centre of his See. He evangelized the people of the land by walking all over the island, gently bringing men and women to a knowledge of Christ.  Although he faced fierce opposition and possible persecution, he continued his missionary journeys.

Patrick left two pieces of writing which are accepted as genuine, his Confession and a Letter to Coroticus. These are of immense value as they reveal Patrick the man, humble and aware that all he achieved was by the grace of Christ. Irish Christians today, of all traditions, equally identify with this holy man and draw inspiration from his life and writings.

There are many legends of Patrick – but the most famous are probably the two about the snakes and the shamrock.  For the legend of Patrick ridding Ireland of snakes, a degree of scepticism is probably in order.  According to natural historians and fossil hunters, Ireland had been devoid of snakes ever since the last ice-age, 10,000 years ago.  Certainly, no fossils of snakes since the ice retreated have ever been found.  Like many such legends, the power of the story is encompassed in its myth.  The snake has always been seen as a symbol of evil, ever since the serpent in the Garden of Eden.  Patrick certainly succeeded in pushing pagan worship from Ireland in his time, and many would have regarded paganism as evil, in those days.  Perhaps the chasing of snakes from Ireland was always intended as a metaphor for Patrick chasing the dark forces of paganism.

As for the shamrock – that is rather a more believable story.  It is said that Patrick was trying to explain the dogma of the Trinity, during his evangelistic tour of Ireland.  He seized upon the shamrock, with its single leaf with three ‘bumps’ as a useful way of illustrating how one God could exist simultaneously in three persons:  Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  There’s no reason to be sceptical of such a story.  It’s what good evangelists do: they use what is around them to draw their listeners into the life of faith.  Jesus talked about boats, and fishing for men, and Samaritans, and sowing seeds – because those images meant something to the people of his day.  Patrick used the shamrock, because it was a familiar plant to all the Irish.

Traditionally, Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland.  But, recent scholarship has uncovered documents which refute that claim.  At the time of Patrick’s arrival, there were already a small number of Churches in the land.  But Patrick’s extraordinary mission certainly fanned the flames of that early faith – and he is responsible, without doubt, for the spread of Christianity all over Ireland.

By the way, the obligatory drinking of Guinness on St Patrick’s day has no historical, legendary, or even metaphorical link!  That’s just a clever marketing ploy!

So what might St Patrick have to teach us?  He’s undoubtedly one of the great Saints of the British Isles.  Well, I think there a few strands worth pulling out from his story…

First, Patrick appears to be someone who didn’t let nationality get in the way of his ministry.  Born a Roman-Britain, travelling extensively in Europe, and then adopting Ireland as his home, Patrick didn’t let national borders stop him telling the good news.

He was fearless in his proclamation of God’s love, even to the warlike, pagan, Irish tribes.  When you or I feel fearful of letting our friends know that we go to church, let alone that God loves them, perhaps we could all do with a little of Patrick’s courage?

His use of the shamrock was inspired.  It was a great example of using something culturally relevant to engage people with the reality of God.  Whilst I love our ancient traditions here at St Faith’s, we must never forget that our communication of God’s love needs to be culturally relevant too, especially if modern people are to hear the good news.

And finally, there’s this.  According to our best scholars, Patrick arrived in Ireland at a time when Christianity was weak, and small.  Only a tiny proportion of the population were Christians.  It sounds rather like our own times, when you think about it.  Only around 2% of the population can be found in English churches on a Sunday – which is quite startling, especially to those of us for whom our entire lives are centred around the church.  Patrick saw that the need for God was very real, and very present, in the society he went to serve.  We too need to grasp the importance, and the urgency of that task.  Amen.