Sunday, 23 April 2017
A friend of mine used to joke about a certain priest’s sermons which went something like this: “I walked into the supermarket yesterday, and it reminded me of Jesus. Amen.” Well, my sermon today may be a little longer than that (sorry), but I’m going to start in a not entirely dissimilar way.
Not, admittedly, in a supermarket, but in a shoe shop, J.D. Sports in Camden Town, in fact, where I found myself on Good Friday, all cassocked up like a faithful priest. Now before you raise your eyebrows in horror that I was out shopping on Good Friday, a day of fasting and weeping and all that, I should point out that I was trying to get a pair of trainers for a homeless man whose shoes had worn out. But I’m not here to “virtue signal.” I just want to tell you what a juxtaposition it was, leaving the tomb-like stillness of my church and going into J.D. Sports. The church was bare, the altars stripped, the people silent and contemplative; but the shoe shop was jam-packed full of people from all around the world practically pushing each other out of the way for bargains, waiting impatiently in long queues, tapping away on mobile ‘phones, and all the while trying to speak over the monstrous cacophony of something vaguely related to music which was booming out throughout the shop.
While I was waiting (also impatiently, to be fair), I had the strange sense that if Jesus had walked in there - even with a robe of purple, a crown of thorns on his head, and bleeding wounds in his hands, feet and side - people would not even have recognised him; and if they had, frankly, I don’t know whether they would have cared. Everything they wanted at that moment was there, in J.D. Sports.
Coming back to supermarkets for a moment, Tesco got into trouble for advertising that they could “Make Good Friday better.” Better than the promise of eternal life won for us on the Cross. Well, I suppose we should be grateful that anyone bothered to complain. Give it another generation, and I don’t know if non-churchgoers will have a clue what Good Friday is, anyway. There will just be a collective blank look: no recognition.
Mary Magdalene famously meets Jesus outside his tomb, and mistakes him for the gardener. It takes her a moment to recognise him. Like an amnesiac, she sees the world through a fuzzy cloud as she grieves. But like so many of the suffers of dementia or Alzheimer’s I have spent time with, Mary is suddenly woken from her stupor by some trigger, something intangible, and I picture her face coming back to life in that moment of recognition. “Mary,” says Jesus, calling her by name – and she remembers. For other disciples, when the Risen Lord appears to them, it will be other things - the breaking of bread, the opening of scriptures, the showing of wounds - but for Mary, it is simply her name that sparks that recognition.
It has been said that our society is suffering from a collective amnesia, generation by generation losing any recognition of what came before. There is no doubt that modern technology decreases individuals’ attention spans, but I am talking about a societal phenomenon that goes back much further than the advent of the iPhone. You could trace it as far back as the Reformation, that first and decisive stripping of the altars, when the King and clergy erased the wall paintings, burnt the statues, took away the raucous plays and festivals which had had kept the faith alive in the Englishman’s imagination - and replaced them all with books, the Bible and Prayer Book, which only the educated few could even read. An old man in James I’s reign was asked about Jesus Christ, and said that he had heard of him, yes, because he had seen him in the village Corpus Christi play at Kendal when he was a child. But that was the extent of his knowledge, because those plays had since been banned by the Reformers, and the result is clear as mud: the English people who had known Jesus for over a thousand years barely even recognised him any more. And that was four hundred years ago.
Things did get better in the Victorian age, under the steam of the Evangelicals and the Anglo-Catholics, who built three of our churches in the Parish of Old St Pancras. People like Fr Basil Jellicoe restored the images and ceremonial, started guilds, built schools for the education of the poor and their instruction in the faith. The heyday was in the 1930s, when tens of thousands gathered in London for mass at the Anglo-Catholic congresses. But that has all gone now. Particularly since the State purloined schools paid for by Victorian Christians, the teaching of the faith has been mostly reduced to a matter of show-and-tell, comparing the funny things one religious group, say Christians, does, with the practices of another religion, of course all from a “neutral” standpoint which suggests that it’s all just a matter of choice anyway: you can choose your religion in much the same way as you choose your trainers, or choose whether to shop in Tesco or Morrison’s. Twenty minutes on Wikipedia, read a few reviews, and you should be able to make your mind up. The result: Christianity becomes a take-it-or-leave-it lifestyle choice.
The problem is, you can’t choose what you don’t even recognise. We used to be able to take it for granted that people at least knew what the Christian religion was before they rejected it. Nowadays, even young Cambridge undergraduates have never even learnt the Lord’s Prayer. Words that used to evoke a great wealth meaning, words like “wood” and “nails,” are being stripped of their significance; let alone words like “Crown” or “nation” or “family.” Our language is losing meaning, our ability even to communicate with each other at anything more than the most prosaic and dull level is rapidly diminishing because we can no longer assume we have anything in common with one another. People are making their “decision” based on atrophied, misinformed perceptions, groping about for meaning in our collective amnesiac fog. We don’t recognise each other, let alone Christ.
Christians could respond to this by saying, well, so what? The early Christians lived as a little minority, a rebel sect, so let’s keep the fire burning discretely and keep to our own, let the world go its own way. We could. But that would be giving in to the modern worldview of religion as a supermarket commodity, and it would be letting our nation down. I would go further and say that we would be complicit in the gradual erosion of identity and even meaning that is happening throughout Europe at the moment. We are heading into a world without society, a world of complete individualism, isolation and self-orientation, where every man and woman is an island. You can see the effects of this isolation on the streets of Camden Town, people staggering about in isolation without family, friends or home. And yet our Lord tells us that the people around us are our brothers and sisters: we have no right as Christians to let our family, our country, our world go this way.
Yet this is Easter, the time of the Resurrection. There is hope. Not for a return to the Christendom of the Middle Ages or Queen Victoria, nor even to the 1950s, none of which were perfect. But there are signs, like them or not, that people are seeking meaning and identity: the tribes marked by people’s clothing, tattoos, band or football t-shirts, the causes they sign up to on Twitter, the rise of the SNP and even the urge for “Brexit.” Tomorrow is St George’s day, and the English flag will no doubt fly from many vans and be daubed on many faces.
The Church would be foolish indeed to sneer at these signs. Our job is to fill in the gaps, to preserve and to restore the memory of our nation: to bring out the Cross at the heart of our flag, to revive the memory of the English people of our historical, intellectual and spiritual roots, and to spark the recognition in every human heart of the Lord above every prince or prelate who commanded us to love one another, and to do what we are about to do in Remembrance of Him.
Sunday, 16 April 2017
This time last week, we were processing around the block with palms in our hands, a short but powerful proclamation of Our Saviour’s entry to Jerusalem: powerful enough that passers-by joined our number, and I hope that some of you have come back here to celebrate His rising from the dead and triumph over death today with us.
But at the same time, while we were singing our way through the back of Sainsbury’s, far away in Egypt, a church full of our brothers and sisters kept Palm Sunday in a very different way. We may feel that we are making ourselves a target by parading publicly as Christians out in Camden Town, but those Egyptian Christians in that awful bomb attack, even as they were beginning to celebrate their Lord’s victory over death, died for the faith we share.
We are right to be horrified and to mourn, but it is important not to lose sight, especially on Easter Day, of what it was we and our Egyptian brethren were proclaiming last week when they died. We do them a disservice if we now lose hope and join the rest of the world in believing that they are no more and death has won the day. For today we proclaim the deepest truth of the Christian faith, the truth towards which the Incarnation at Christmas and the Cross and Passion of Holy Week lead: the truth of the Resurrection.
Claims of truth are mistrusted in what has, I think misleadingly, been called a “post-truth” age. So let me first be clear: the truth of the Resurrection is not merely a proclamation of dogma, something for your list of 100 impossible things to believe before breakfast. Belief in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is not something you merely sign up to to please God or the Church. It is first of all a matter of trust, trust in people: the people who first saw the empty tomb, the people who saw Jesus variously risen and appearing to them from the dead, the people who wrote this down in what would later become the Bible. People chosen by God and inspired by God. And if you ask, “why should we trust them - what were their vested interests?”, the most powerful answer I can give is that so many of them chose to die rather than give up on proclaiming what they had seen. These Christian martyrs did not take anyone else with them - suicide-bombers do not follow a man who ordered his disciples to put away their swords - but they let themselves be tortured and killed rather than deny their Risen Lord. They could have joined any number of Greek or Roman mystery cults promising eternal life, even wealth here and now, but they stuck to the vision of the executed criminal who promised them a resurrection like the one they had seen with their own eyes. Truly, the seed of the Church was sown in the blood of the martyrs.
It might surprise you to hear that the second generation of Christians did not for the most part worship in churches. Nor did most of them even worship in private homes, as is often thought. More recent scholarship shows that around 95% of these Christians worshipped weekly outdoors in graveyards, especially at the gravesides of martyrs. And the nature of their worship was much what we are doing today, and our Egyptian brothers and sisters were doing when they were martyred last week: celebrating the Eucharist.
Now this is something that horrified many non-Christians, especially Jews, for whom the dead were unclean. The idea of praying and offering a sacrifice for the dead was not new, but to do it among the dead, and even to eat among them was beyond the pale. But that is what our early Christian forebears did, whatever later reformers might think about prayers for the dead, and not just incidentally as an aside to more conventional indoor Eucharists, but as the main form of worship for the overwhelming majority of Christians every week. So why?
The answer is simply that the Eucharist was for Christians a matter of life and death. It is the way that Christ has given us to participate in his death on the Cross and his resurrection to eternal life.
In one way this is a great and supernatural paradox and miraculous exchange: God, who cannot die, does die, so that we, who cannot live forever, can live forever. And so it was natural for the early Christians to worship near those who had received the Eucharist before them, and whose mortal remains were therefore destined for resurrected life. Hence the cult of relics, and the reason why relics of martyrs are to this day placed in churches’ altar stones.
But in another way, it is the revelation of something miraculous but nonetheless completely natural: the cycle of death and birth. Imagine a grain sown into the earth. It grows to wheat and the grain is no more. The wheat is cut and ground to be made into dough. The dough is mixed with yeast to rise and then baked into bread for our sustenance. Just so, Christ died, was cut down from the Cross and was buried in the earth, then rose to life by the yeast and fire of the Holy Spirit. We have the bread which sustains our mortal life only because the grain dies and gives wheat. We have the Resurrection to eternal life only because Jesus dies and yields to us his immortality.
What we are doing here, and Christians throughout time and the world are doing whenever they celebrate mass, is nothing other than preparing for death. The historian St Bede writes of several early British saints, such as Hilda, Caedmon and Cuthbert, that they received the Sacrament as close as possible to the moment of their own deaths, ideally surrounded by their fellow Christians. St Dunstan, 10th century Archbishop of Canterbury, during mass in the Easter octave, surrounded by the singing of psalms, received the precious Body of Christ and then, it is written, “gave up his spirit,” so joining his departure with Our Lord’s on the Cross. It may sound strange to the world, but for a Christian, there can be no better way to die.
So now, my brothers and sisters, I urge you to give thanks today at our altar for the blood of the martyrs, even the most recent ones, confident in their Resurrection to life with Our Lord; to offer his sacrifice for them here as our forebears have ever done; and now and at every Mass to prepare also for your own death, praying for God’s grace to transform you into the fulness of Resurrected Life in which he wills you to rejoice.
Alleluia! Christ is risen.
Thursday, 13 April 2017
|The Cosmic Christ|
Or imagine for a moment that I took your national flag and burned it right in front of you; and when you got angry, I said, “well, it’s just a piece of coloured cloth.”
Or to take another example, what if I ripped the head off a toddler's favourite teddy bear? She could cry all she liked, but after all, I could say, “it’s just some stuffed bit of polyester.” What’s all the fuss about?
Now of course, a handshake or even a kiss is friction between two people’s flesh. A flag is a piece of coloured cloth. A teddy bear is a stuffed bit of polyester. But to say that they are just any of these things is misleading. They have a deeper significance than their mere outward forms might suggest.
And yet there are those who like to say that the Eucharist Jesus instituted the night before he died was just a meal between friends, just an act of remembrance, and that the food we eat is just bread and wine.
There are even those within the Church who might say that Jesus is just a man, and certainly, it took about four centuries to come up with a satisfactory answer to how Jesus could be both God and man at the same time. Yet that was the conclusion of the Church, as it tested the ideas that Jesus was either just God in disguise as a man, or just a man claiming equality with God, and found both solutions wanting. The orthodox Christian faith therefore became one not of just one or the other, but of both.
It’s no secret (but is surely a shame) that the Church today remains divided in all sorts of directions. We have seen some of the fallout of those divisions close to home recently, when my predecessor Bishop Philip was pressured into refusing to become Bishop of Sheffield. Yet the major fault line between Christians nowadays, it seems to me, is not so much between traditionalists and liberals, or even Catholics and Protestants. It is between those on the one hand who believe that the God’s grace, integrally woven into his Creation right from the start, is still there; and those on the other who think that God’s grace has been more or less obliterated in the Fall by human sin. To put it another way, it is between those who think the image of God is deformed but still there in humanity and the rest of creation along with all our sin and wickedness, and those who think that sin has completely obliterated the image of God in us, that creation now is just creation unless grace is actively superimposed on it by God.
If you take the former view, that God’s grace is still present in Creation simply because God made it, then it stands to reason that the world and things and people are at their heart good, corrupted but still all part of God’s basic goodness.
If you take the other view, then the world and everything in it is fundamentally wicked and wretched, fit only for damnation. This view has its strong points. It begins in the writings of St Paul, and is built on by St Augustine, then reaches its climax at the Reformation in the thought of Calvin. Its strength lies in the idea that if we are completely and utterly depraved, empty of grace, then we have to rely entirely on God’s love for our salvation. Our own actions and the things of this world have no bearing on the next. We are utterly at the mercy of God who saves us, despite our sinful nature.
Yet this view comes with certain problems, too. It raises the question of why an all-powerful God would create something fit only for condemnation. It even risks making God responsible for evil, an impossibility if God is by definition entirely good. And St Augustine notwithstanding, it is certainly not the majority view of the early Church fathers, and does not reflect the practice of early Christians, whose theology and worship demonstrate a sense of connection between God and his creation in the person of Jesus Christ.
Maundy Thursday is primarily about Jesus’ double mandate (which is why we call it Maundy Thursday) first, to love one another as he has loved us, and second, to do this in remembrance of him: in other words, to celebrate the Eucharist. The night before he dies, Jesus gives us his followers the means to share in the death he is about to undergo on the Cross and in his Resurrection. He gives us the “daily bread” which he has taught us to pray for: epiousios artos, that difficult phrase in Greek which I have mentioned before means both “bread for our existence” and at the same time “supernatural bread.” A lot of knickers got twisted in the 16th century over whether the bread in the Mass stayed as bread or was completely transformed into Christ’s body, but the answer hinted at by that word epiousios in the Lord’s Prayer, and more fundamentally by Jesus’ own incarnate nature as both God and man, is that the Eucharist is not just one or the other, but simultaneously both the bread of earth and of heaven.
Tonight, Jesus links natural bread and wine to the supernatural gift of his eternal divine life tomorrow on the Cross. This gives us a principle, you could call it a sacramental principle, which gives a richness of meaning to the entirety of the created order and to our lives. To put this sacramental principle in the traditional language of the Church, as you will find in our own Book of Common Prayer, a sacrament is an outward, visible sign of an inner, invisible grace. The bread and wine are the outward, visible signs of the inner, invisible grace of the Body and Blood of Christ - and it is this principle, the principle embodied in Jesus’ life as both God and man and given to us by Jesus as the primal sacrament of the Eucharist, which anciently conditioned the Church’s view of reality.
For in the beginning, God made the world and saw that it was good. His Spirit brooded over the waters and gave creation form, he breathed it into Adam and Eve to give life to the human race; and it was as a human that he came among us as God the Son, Our Saviour Jesus Christ, to live and die and give us life.
Just so, from the earth he made we take wheat and grapes and make of them bread and wine, already suffused with God’s grace because it was by his grace, by the work of the Spirit, that he made them in the first place.
And so the Cross of Christ brings to perfection, realises and fulfils the graced potential of all reality, the entire cosmos, making the world our High Priest’s altar; an enriched, fulfilled reality in which we can participate through our altar here today. For in the Holy Eucharist, through our hands, Christ does not destroy the bread and wine to give us his body and blood, but brings their innate potential to perfection, making them food not just for our bodies but for our souls, and so gradually working the perfection of all reality.
The Last Supper was not just a meal, any more than the Crucifixion was just the execution of a radical rabbi. Tonight, as Christ offers his body and blood through bread and wine at our hands, he lifts us up with our brothers and sisters throughout the entire world and throughout all time, even with the saints in heaven, in an act of adoration and sacrifice of cosmic significance: as we dwell in him and he in us, we become the self-offering of God to himself, the Spirit-born Body of the Son lifted by the hands of angels to the Father.
For in this outward act of taking and eating and drinking, Christ reveals to us the true and perfect reality, the Kingdom lying in wait under the surface of creation, waiting to be blessed and broken and born anew: the mystery, the secret, the sacrament of salvation he entrusted to his Church that night before he died.
Wednesday, 12 April 2017
So far, since Monday, I have been saying that there is a common thread holding each of the three gospel passages together in the Greek word paradosis, which means in the Bible both "handing over" and "betrayal," and so links Judas' handing over of Jesus to the authorities with Jesus' handing over of himself in bread and wine. We saw how three characters respond to Jesus handing his body and blood over to them: Mary by giving without counting the cost, Peter by betraying Jesus but returning to him for forgiveness, and Judas by betraying Jesus, handing him over to the authorities, and losing all hope and trust in God.
So far we have been looking at all this through the lens of St John's gospel. Like yesterday, today we are guests at the Last Supper, but now we put on St Matthew's specs and see see things slightly differently. So let’s set the scene.
First thing, forget the painting by Leonardo da Vinci. The disciples were not sitting on chairs around a dining table. They were dining in the ancient Greco-Roman style, which meant leaning on reclining sofas and taking food off a low table; this is how St John could be leaning on Jesus' chest, which would be rather difficult on a set of matching Gainsboroughs. They are dining ancient pagan style.
Second, even though they are dining pagan style, they are all very much Jews. Unlike St John’s, St Matthew’s gospel is written for a mostly Jewish audience. He makes this clear by using words like "Master," which in the original is actually "teacher," the word Greek-speakers used for “Rabbi.” And so third, bear in mind that the Last Supper is a ritual meal, the beginning of the Passover. Put out of mind those awful sermons that you will most certainly never have heard in this parish, where the preacher tries to tell you that the Last Supper was just Jesus having a nice dinner with his mates. No. It was not a pie and a pint at the Lord Stanley. It was a Jewish ritual meal which acted as the preliminary to the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, and it was being done in the style of an Ancient Greek symposium meal where a philosopher instructs his pupils.
Perhaps you can see where this is leading. The Last Supper was the ritual preparation for the sacrifice of the new Passover lamb who is Jesus Christ himself. It is only when he is handed over to death on the Cross that his handing over of himself in bread and wine makes any sense.
This leaves us with a rather awkward question. If Jesus had to be handed over to death, where does this leave Judas? Does this get him off the hook on which he has been speared for two millennia? The traditional answer is no, and the trendy answer is yes. As so often, I tend to sit between the two camps.
On the one hand, Judas and Judas alone made the choice he made, and it was he who gave up all hope in God's forgiveness when he ended his own life.
On the other, we all know that people do not take their lives lightly, and it is very hard to say that anyone who does so is enough in their right mind to be held to blame for it. Nor is it easy to make any sense of God as wholly good if he predestines certain people to do evil things. What is more, the bottom line of Christianity is forgiveness and God's mercy, even to the extent that some ancient church fathers thought that in the end, even the Devil himself would be saved - so I think we are secure at least in hoping for Judas' salvation at the last.
A tentative hope, however, is not much for us to go on. Better that we trust in the guarantee of salvation. That is what Our Lord offers us in baptism, just as he offers the guarantee of forgiveness in Confession, and the guarantee that through receiving his body and blood handed over to us through the Apostolic tradition of the Church, he will hand us over to eternal life with our Father.
Tuesday, 11 April 2017
I hope you've got the keys to the Tardis in your handbags, because we've got a bit of zipping through time to do in these three days of Holy Week. Yesterday, St John took us back in time to the night before the events of Palm Sunday, and we heard how it was Mary who had listened and understood how Our Lord was going to be handed over to the Cross and how he would hand himself over to us. Mary’s response was to give without counting the cost, in contrast with Judas, so desperate for everything to be costed for usefulness. Interesting that it was a woman who understood Jesus better than any disciple, just as we commemorate the women weeping for him in the Stations of the Cross, and just as it was a woman, another Mary, who first saw him resurrected: especially since today, our gospel is a tale of two men, and both traitors.
I do love a good John le Carré novel, especially the ever-popular "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." Le Carré builds up a sympathetic portrait of the British spy Bill Hayden, trusty old reliable Bill, showing us all his deep friendships and loyalties, and then of course explodes them all when it turns out that Bill is the mole, the double-agent who has been selling MI6 out to Moscow all along. We have a national fascination with traitors like these - Tinker, Tailor became an incredibly popular TV series starring Alec Guinness, and more recently, a Hollywood film success - and there is no end of biographies and documentaries on the likes of real-life double-agents such as Kim Philby.
Take all these traitors back to their archetypal core, and you've got Judas. Not content to do things Jesus' way, like the Communist double-agents, he wanted radical change, revolution now. A pie-in-the-sky Kingdom of love and peace was no good: what was called for was immediate redistribution of wealth, a return of power to the Jewish people, by violence if necessary. And so, even while he lived among the students or disciples of Jesus, he was in the pay of rival authorities, waiting for the moment to spring the trap. We associate the betrayal of Jesus with the Garden of Gethsemane and the famous "Judas Kiss," but I would say that the decisive moment in Judas' betrayal - his handing over, his paradosis of Jesus - happens beforehand, in tonight's gospel. For this is where Jesus hands himself over to his disciples, in bread and wine. And they all take the bread - including Judas and Peter. They both receive him. And yet, in St Paul's words, they receive him unworthily, because they will both betray him.
But there is a difference. Peter will betray Jesus, yes: three times, before the cock crows. But he will return to Jesus. He trusts in Our Lord to forgive him, as indeed Our Lord will, when three times he entrusts to Peter the care of his sheep. Peter receives unworthily, but he never loses hope in Jesus' compassion and forgiveness.
Judas, though, has abandoned all hope of forgiveness. He thinks he can make the Kingdom of Heaven by force, and when he fails, he is blind to the reality of that Kingdom embodied in Christ right before his eyes. This hopeless fatalism, his fear that there is no redemption for him, is what makes Judas’ story so tragic, in the proper sense of the word. But more on him tomorrow.
For now, let us heed tonight's gospel, and look to ourselves. Are we a Bill Hayden or Kim Philby, a double-agent in Jesus' camp? Could it be that we, even tonight at mass, receive Our Lord unworthily, offering our lives with our lips but holding back when it counts?
If so, we have two options. Option one: we hold out like Judas, harbouring our grudges until finally, we abandon hope, lose trust in God and take the Devil's shilling. Or option two, Peter's way: we acknowledge that we have sinned and return to God in the knowledge that for all our betrayals, he forgives all those who truly repent and longs for our reconciliation. And that, dear brethren, is why he has given his priests a purple stole.
It's not too late.