Monday, 21 May 2018

Pentecost: Love's ardour

Love’s ardour caught the imagination of both the world and the Church last weekend: the Church, because it was Pentecost, and the world, because of the Royal Wedding. At the latter, it was no coincidence that the American Anglican Bishop Curry preached - memorably - on love as a fire which burns in every heart: for that is what the Holy Spirit, which descended on the Apostles fifty days after Easter, is all about. It is the Spirit of that divine love which is not just characteristic of God, but, St John reports, actually is God.
Pentecost existed before the Christian Church. It was a Jewish festival, and this is the reason so many Jews from so many nations, speaking all their different languages, were gathered in Jerusalem at the time. They had come, fifty days after the Passover, to mark the gift of God to Moses of the Law, the Torah which forms the heart of the Jewish faith and scriptures. So, it was a fitting time for the Holy Spirit to descend on the Apostles, appearing to them like tongues of flame licking around their heads, and sending them out into the streets to proclaim the Gospel of love: a message which those international bystanders heard in their own tongue, showing the universal scope of the message.
To this day, the successors of the Apostles, the bishops of the Church, wear flame-shaped hats called mitres to show that the gift of the Spirit has been passed down to them by laying on of hands from generation to generation. And yet the Holy Spirit is certainly not confined to bishops alone, nor even to the Apostles.
The Holy Spirit was at work long before Pentecost. It was the Holy Spirit which moved over the waters and moulded them into being at the beginning of time; which breathed life into man; which overshadowed the Blessed Virgin Mary and by which Jesus was conceived; which drove him into the desert to be tempted; which appeared in the form of a dove at his baptism; which he breathed out into creation from the Cross.
And the Holy Spirit has continued to work long since Pentecost, among other things in works of healing, gifts of wisdom and truth, moments of spiritual insight, and in the sacraments, especially in the Eucharist where it is called upon to change bread and wine into the spiritual food of Christ’s own body and blood. This same transforming power works in many ways to make us more like Christ, people who live for others rather than ourselves: in other words, transforms us into love.
Much in this world can stifle the flame of love in our hearts. Distractions abound. The remedy is prayer, that lifting of our internal “fire blankets” to open our hearts to the oxygen of the Holy Spirit - God’s breath - that the flame within might grow; and the fuel for that fire is the Eucharist, a fuel which is never consumed but which yields eternal light, and by which we are spiritually conformed to the image of the God who is none other than the self-gift of Christ-like love.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

St Paul's guerilla missionary tactics

Sermon for the Fourth Thursday after Easter
Acts 13:13-25, John 13:16-20

Throughout Eastertide, the Church at mass reads the Acts of Apostles, that gripping story of the earliest days of her history after the death and resurrection of her cornerstone and founder. It is one of the first texts I recommend to newcomers to the Bible, along with St Luke’s Gospel: he, after all, wrote both books as a pair. I encourage you, too, if you are looking for a way into the Bible or a refresher on the Christian story, to read Acts this Eastertide, not least because it provides a study in how the Church grew in the pursuit of its mission.

St Paul’s speech to the synagogue in Antioch gives us an insight into his guerrilla missionary tactics. Even though he calls himself ‘Apostle to the Gentiles,’ and preaches that Christ is for all people, he does not mind using his own Jewish heritage to speak the language that his audience will understand: like the guerrilla, to infiltrate their society and work to foment revolution from within. Elsewhere, under completely the opposite circumstances, we hear him applying the same methods to the Greek philosophers at the Areopagus, persuading them that it is their ‘unknown god’ who is, behind the veil, the God of Abraham and Isaac revealed in Jesus Christ. The man who elsewhere rejects philosophy as folly will speak philosophy to the Greeks if it will win them to Christ; and here, he will happily speak the language of scripture and history to his fellow Jews.

The passage we just read is only the beginning of his speech, where he puts Jesus firmly into the line of Jewish historical expectation. Next, he will speak approvingly of his fellow Jews as ‘god-fearing.’ Only once he has won their confidence will he move to controversy. The Jews were those who followed the Law, so Paul will speak in legal terms, talking about ‘justification,’ being ‘made righteous’ – but, he will say, this justification happens not through mere obedience to the law, but by faith.

St Paul makes it clear that the ‘faith’ he is talking about cannot, in the end, be reduced to a mere legalism, apprehended by narrow intellection. Rather, the faith he is talking about is a deeply experienced trust, not in an idea or even set of divine diktats, but in the person of Jesus Christ.

How we find that faith is expressed in today’s Gospel passage from St John. Now, St Paul would not have read this, since it was not written until after his death, but we must remember that the Christian faith existed in practice before it existed on paper. Paul writes himself about the weekly Eucharist, and the events of the Last Supper would have been formative on him from his earliest days as a Christian. What St John expresses here ties in perfectly with St Paul’s own theology and that of the Apostles, because it is the faith which Jesus Christ himself espouses in both his teachings and his actions.

First, the washing of the feet. We are to repent and be baptised; and thereafter, to continue to repent and be purified in mind and soul. Only then, second, can we receive the Eucharist which Jesus establishes in the Last Supper. For if we come to the altar still sullied by our sins, we eat the bread of the Lord whilst raising our heel against him – we betray him.

John here uses the remarkable word trĊgein for 'eat,' which really means ‘chew’ or ‘gnaw,’ a word Jesus used when he said before to the unbelievers that they must, really, truly, ‘chew on’ his body if they are to be saved. This was a scandal to the Jews of those days, and remains a scandal to the world today. And yet, Jesus tells us clearly, it is by repenting, being made pure and feasting upon him at the Eucharist that he enriches us with the depth of trust and love in God which St Paul calls ‘faith.’

It is up to us to keep receiving this inestimable gift, and, like St Paul, to be as wise as serpents in how we share it with those we encounter and among whom we live. Such is the mission of the Church: not only to make new Christians, to sign people up, but more importantly, to help the deep entrusting in God grow in human hearts, for that is where the salvation of the world from all its troubles lies.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

England's modern dragons: an appeal to St George

The best known story about England’s patron saint is a myth, but there are plenty of real-life dragons rearing their scaly heads on our nation’s political scene right now: most notably, dragons of racial antipathy which many people thought had been slain in this land long ago.
On the one side of the political spectrum, there is the old red dragon of anti-Semitism. The Chief Rabbi has expressed his incredulity that, after decades of speaking on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, he should now, for the first time, have to address the very public abuse of Jews in this country.
At the other end, we have the blue dragon of xenophobia, as the children of people who came to us on HMS Empire Windrush, many of whom served this country at war, are told that they have no right to be here.
These dragons have been roused, to some extent, by the ongoing debate over Great Britain’s place in the world. They have been fed by the ongoing negotiations for Great Britain’s exodus from the European Union and, recently, by the meeting of heads of Commonwealth nations.
Those who advocate remaining in the EU have to face the fact that it is, in the end, a membership club of very different nations whose main commonality is that the majority of their people are white skinned. Those who (like me) point to the Commonwealth as an alternative, which is anything but white-dominated and has in common both the English language and legal systems, have to admit that this commonality is somewhat tarnished by having been achieved by a white-majority Britain conquering and imposing it on foreign peoples.
But whether you are a die-hard internationalist who shudders to think of the UK leaving the EU, a romantic cheerleader for the Commonwealth who longs for a union of English-speaking nations, or an isolationist who thinks we can get on nicely on our own, our patron saint might have something to contribute as you lie back and think of England.
First, the patron saint of England was not English. He was born either in Cappadocia or in Syria, and was brought up in Lydda, in what is now Israel. George was a Christian in a time when Christians were a barely tolerated minority. He was serving as a soldier in the Roman Army, when in AD 303 the increasingly deranged Emperor Diocletian ordered a wave of persecutions against Christians. All Christians serving in the army either had to sacrifice animals to the pagan gods, or forfeit their job. George objected to the Emperor in person. For this, on 23 April, he was martyred. His tomb can still be found in Lydda, where Palestinian Christians and Muslims together venerate him to this day.
This is where England gets its flag: a cross, red with the blood of a real, historic martyr, a man who would rather die than give up on his faith in the love of Christ. A man who persevered in the face of great adversity, as our Christian brothers and sisters still suffer and persevere in Arab lands today.
Our patron saint and our flag tell a story of a nation far less insular than its geography suggests. Our story is only part of a greater story, greater even than those of Europe or of the Commonwealth: a story which connects us, through a Turkish or Syrian soldier, who served in the Roman Empire, to modern Palestinian Christians and Muslims, and fundamentally to that story, which transcends time and nation, of the self-sacrificing love of Christ.
A nation which remembers the persecution of its patron as a member of the ancient Christian minority has no business allowing the modern Jewish minority to be persecuted in its domain.
A nation which remembers the injustice of a soldier serving in a foreign army being threatened with demotion and death by the empire he served has no business threatening people who have served and lived here loyally with exile.
A nation which takes the Cross of Christ as its flag has no business putting self-interest before the needs of the vulnerable, the persecuted or the despised today.
What this nation needs is to be more like St George: to slay the dragons of sinful self-interest, and to persevere in the self-giving love of Christ.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

The Emmaus Road: recognising your inner Christ

Sermon on Luke 24:13-35 for the pupils of Lichfield Cathedral School

I know when I’m busy, I can be so preoccupied with the detail, with my own ‘devices and desires,’ that my mind is too full, or too closed, to see the wood for the trees - something like the situation of the disciples on the Emmaus road. They were so wrapped up in their own situation, their grief that Jesus had died, that despite everything he had preached and promised, “their eyes were kept from recognising him:” their minds were closed to the possibility that he might actually have risen after three days like he said he would. He was a stranger to them, until this stranger did something that opened their eyes: just like at the Last Supper, he blessed and broke and shared bread.

I don’t believe that faith is something instant that suddenly comes with believing X, Y or Z. Faith is more like a gradual accustoming of the inner eye to hidden realities, and prayer – especially the Eucharist – is the school which teaches the heart to see through the lens of topsy-turvy divine love, a love which turns human expectations upside down: which makes a child born in a stable into the king of all creation, a cursed Jewish criminal into the saviour of the world, an instrument of torture into the means of eternal life, bread and wine into flesh and blood, strangers closer than family.

The story of the Emmaus road asks us: Where do our eyes need to be opened today? Where might Christ be hiding in plain sight?

Years 11 and 13 are facing exams very soon. The results could be life-changing. So, of course their minds will be preoccupied with these things just now – as will the minds of their parents and teachers. But any preoccupation, anxiety, narrowing of the vision like this needs a massive ‘spiritual health warning’ slapped on it straight away. It’s easy just to get dragged along by the educational system without ever pausing to question - why exactly am I doing this anyway? If pupils don’t have a positive answer to this question, they’re unlikely to have the inward motivation to succeed. If they are motivated only by something outside, like parental pressure or fear of failure, that will get them only so far, and probably do their mental health no favours, either.

So one question I think today’s reading poses all of us is: what might the resurrected you look like? The perfected you, completely fulfilled? Would you even recognise yourself? And if you're taking exams, how do these contribute towards you becoming who you really are? One spiritual meaning of the Emmaus road story at the beginning of this term is that we mustn’t be distracted from looking to where our inner Christ is hiding, and making that the inward motivation for all that we do.

Introspection, though, alerts us to a second danger: against us getting so caught up in our little cloister on the Close that we lose sight of the bigger events going on in the world. Growing tensions with Russia, anti-Semitism in a mainstream political party, the fiftieth anniversary of both Martin Luther King Junior’s assassination in the USA and Enoch Powell’s anti-immigrant speech in the British parliament: what might the appearance of Christ on the Emmaus road have to contribute to these situations, I wonder? Where might our leaders find Christ’s reconciling presence? How and where can we, as a Christian organization, recognise Jesus and point him out? How can we make his topsy-turvy love known to the world in the breaking and sharing of bread?

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

"For fear of the Jews:" Homily on the Feast of the Annunciation

Anti-semitic propaganda

“For fear of the Jews” - a phrase from the Gospel of Low Sunday, not the Annunciation, but one which really stuck with me when I heard it. After the Crucifixion, the disciples locked themselves in: “for fear of the Jews.”

There is quite a lot of that going around.

I was in a McDonalds last year in London, getting a quick cup of coffee in between parish visits, so I was wearing my cassock. Recognising me as a priest, an employee of Middle Eastern provenance started chatting to me. I started to feel uncomfortable when his line of questioning rapidly turned to ‘the Jews,’ and what I thought of them. When I refused to be baited, his conversation turned into a public diatribe. Other McDonalds staff started listening in, and seemed to be going along with what he was saying: which basically amounted to ‘fear of the Jews.’ Fear of the Jews running the media; fear of the Jews running the economy, the banks; fear of the Jews in secret societies manipulating the political order towards Zionism. An ancient fear, stoked for centuries by a Christian sense of victimhood, but clearly not limited to Christians. A fear shared by much of the Islamic world, and nowadays, even by the secular Left, even to the unthinkable extent of the Board of Deputies of British Jews organizing a protest against a leader of the Opposition. We will see how much the charges of anti-Semitism matter to London voters in next month’s elections: my hunch is, not much. If anything, in today’s political climate, it is the Jews who need to be afraid.

The feast of the Annunciation might be a chance to remind ourselves of a basic fact about the Christian faith: Jesus was Jewish. So was his mother. It astounds me how many teenagers taking GCSE Religious Studies can be unaware of this basic fact, so forgive me for spelling it out. But let’s not stick with basics. It’s also important to recognise that Mary’s Jewish faith is not an accident of history, something merely incidental to the Christian message (or, worse, displaced by it): rather, the Jewish faith is the bedrock of God’s revelation in the person of Jesus Christ, and the Lucan account makes this absolutely clear.

This gospel and the Acts of the Apostles were written by the same person, whom posterity has designated “Luke.” It is often said that Luke is the most gentile of the gospels, even that its author was a non-Jewish doctor writing for fellow non-Jews. This is nowadays disputed. Despite its cultured style, redolent of pagan Greek literature, the entire gospel is interwoven with references to the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint), subtle references which a gentile would have been unlikely to recognise. And these are particularly obvious in the infancy narrative, the story of Jesus’ birth and childhood, which does not appear in the other gospels, but only in Luke.

Take the passage of the Annunciation. Properly speaking, we should call it ‘an’ annunciation, because it follows immediately after another one: the annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist. This annunciation of the birth of a child to the elderly Zechariah and Elizabeth is part of a long line of Old Testament precedents: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Hannah were all impossibly old to have a baby. Now, moving to Mary, we have a contrast, a different kind of impossibility: the promise of a virgin birth. But the message remains the same, and is directly drawn from the Old Testament book of Genesis: “With God, nothing is impossible.” If the impossibility of God is accepted, then anything else, however improbable, can happen. The Annunciation leaves us with the firmly Jewish, Old Testament message that the possibility of God overturns all our expectations.

But that is only the beginning. A good reason for believing that the infancy narrative was not a later afterthought bolted on to Luke’s gospel, as some scholars have argued, is that the rest of the gospel and Acts continue to unfold the same message.

Mary plays more than just a bit part in that message. Most powerfully of all, later in this same chapter, she sings the Magnificat, a song based on the Old Testament words of Hannah and which the Church continues to sing at Evensong every day, proclaiming that God will overturn the natural order, bringing down the mighty and raising up the humble and weak. So she prophesies the role and work of her Son, not only in his teaching and ministry among the poor and excluded, but far more than that, in his ultimate overturning of the natural order: turning death to life, the death of one to the eternal life of all.

The Virgin who gives birth, the young and powerless woman who proclaims the overthrowing of the mighty, the mother who nurtures a Son who will turn even the tables of life and death: Our Blessed Lady deserves our veneration and will hear our prayers, especially for the poor, the excluded, and the afraid. And so, right now, especially for her fellow Jews.