I’m going to let you into a little secret. Our Musical Director, Graham, confessed on Friday evening, that he doesn’t like this evening’s anthem, very much! (Graham’s only been with us for a few months, so he hasn’t yet learned the cardinal rule that anything said within the earshot of the Rector might get repeated in a sermon!)
But, despite his personal antipathy towards the anthem, Graham chose it for tonight because it is a setting of some of the words of our second reading. I think I know why Graham doesn’t like it much – it is after all a rather strange mishmash of tempos and tunes. There are strange passages of recitative, which don’t sit well on the ear – and which are tricky to conduct.
As I’m sure Graham already know, the whole anthem actually has a rather interesting history. It was composed by Samuel Sebastian Wesley, father of John, when he was organist at Hereford Cathedral. On Easter Day 1853, the Cathedral Choir could only field a rank of trebles, and a single Bass – who was the Dean of the Cathedral’s butler. Which goes to show that the myth of packed Cathedral Choirs and pews is exactly that…a grand myth. Churches have always struggled to fill all the available pews. We, who spend our time singing praise to God have always been a faithful remnant of our communities.
So, in 1853, confronted with just the sort of challenges we face, Wesley had to come up with something dramatic, which would make the best of the resources he had available. And so Blessed be the God and Father was born.
We don’t know why he was attracted to this particular, rather obscure and theological passage of the first letter of Peter. Perhaps it was a set reading for the day on Easter Day 1853 – I haven’t researched the ancient lectionaries. But the words he chose from Peter’s letter are only partly co-terminus with the reading we’ve just had. Wesley actually chose sections of text from tonight’s reading and from later verses in the same chapter. He welded them together, to focus on a number of primary messages – some of which just happen to work rather well for the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity!
There is not the time to focus on the totality of theology contained in these verses. Frankly, a sermon could be preached on every phrase. Peter no doubt had a meta-narrative in his mind – which flavours what is an almost incomprehensibly dense theological statement. Here’s what I think he was mainly trying to say…
First, he gives praise to God – literally, ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’. He praises him because, by the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has offered us a ‘real and lively hope’ of our own salvation. This is the good news that Peter is anxious to communicate to his readers – the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ.
That is, of course, a message which is common to all Christians. We will disagree on the exact mechanism by which Jesus offers us salvation. For orthodox and evangelical Christians, it is faith Jesus’ death on the cross, and his taking the penalty of sin, which will be uppermost. For more liberally-minded Christians, the focus is likely to be more on following the life of Jesus, and making it real today. But from whichever side of the theological divide we come, we can all agree that Jesus is the focus and centre of our hope of salvation. It is because of Jesus, that we have “an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for” us “who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time”.
But, Peter goes on, this hope should have consequences for the way we live. Jumping to verse 15 of Peter’s text, Wesley reminds us that “he who has called you is holy. So be YE also holy, in all mannner of conversation”. For Peter, words have power, and holy words even more so. He encourages all followers of Jesus to be holy in the way we speak. Such advice might have been well heeded during the centuries of hatred and division between Christians. Perhaps if phrases like ‘Popish Scum’ or ‘Protestant Heretics’ had not been so liberally banded about during those years, the Church might have been far better able to draw in the communities it was called to serve. Perhaps the choir of Hereford Cathedral, in 1853, might not have been reduced to a few trebles and a lone bass.
Peter then expands on his theme. Not only should our conversation be holy, but we are called to ‘Love another with a pure heart, fervently’. It is perhaps Love, more than anything, which has been missing in the cut and thrust of theological debate over the centuries. This morning, I preached on the human obsession with ‘being correct’ – it’s a sermon you can read on our parish website if you are minded to do so. We have fought with each other over the correct way to worship, the correct time of life to baptise, the correct organisational structure of the church, the correct attitudes to marriage and human sexuality. And in all these debates, time and time again, we have forgotten the primary imperative – ‘to love one another with a pure heart, fervently’.
For if I truly love you, I will not insult you, beat you, or even burn you at the stake just because you have a different understanding of what correct theology looks like. If I truly love you, I will listen to what you say, and thoughtfully consider whether there is merit in your words and in your understanding. If I still profoundly disagree with you, but still love you, I will seek to maintain the bond of love. I will continue to be your brother, and to walk with you along the road of faith.
Because I will understand that “all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away”. We are, each of us, fragile, failing, growing, withering, temporary, provisional, creatures. In all humility, none of us can claim to know the true mind of God. All our theological learning and arguing has only scratched the very outer surface of the reality which is God. God is infinite. I am very finite. God is the author of all being. I am but one being. What else can we do, but love one another, fervently, and give blessing to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Living “Word of the Lord who endureth for ever”?
Whether this sermon has engendered any new appreciation for this evening’s anthem in our Director of Music, I shall wait eagerly to find out. In the meantime, let me leave you with this passing thought. This week, the United Kingdom will exit the European Union – or at least cross over the starting line of the process. That will be a subject of great rejoicing for some, and of profound sorrow for others. We have all tried to grapple, with different levels of interest and attention, with the Brexit debate. We have perhaps all made the mistake of assuming that our position was the correct position to hold. The reality is that Brexit is a finely balanced political judgment, involving questions of economics, immigration, national resources and political alliances which few of us are truly able to grasp. The Brexit question, like God, is very big. And, for myself, I can only say that my brain is very small.
Into this situation, I believe that Peter can speak even more powerfully. As we move forward into a pre-post-Brexit era, let us continue to love one another, with a pure heart, fervently.