Monday, April 29, 2013

Offering ourselves in the power of Jesus' self offering...

Thought I might share this snippet from the great twentieth-century Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, with my class this evening. I found it whilst doing some work for a Sermon and it struck me as quite a beautiful summary of the eucharistic offering.
"From the time of his ascension onwards [Jesus'] followers have met together to unite themselves with him in his sacrifice, by doing again what he did at this, the spiritual crisis of [his] ministry. They meet in his name, and he is in the midst of them; they are members of his body and he acts through them. Still by the hands of the priest, he takes the bread which he calls his body, breaks it and gives it. But we are that body – "very members incorporate" therein. In union with his perfect sacrifice, we offer to God "ourselves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice" to him. Still we drink the cup, that his blood, his life given in sacrifice and triumphant over death, may be in us the spring of eternal life in fellowship with him. Whether or not he commanded us to use this rite, as I believe that he did, yet its significance and power consists in the fact that we do in remembrance of him what he did "in the same night in which he was betrayed," offering ourselves in the power of his self offering."
William Temple, Readings in St John's Gospel, 220

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The most obeyed commandment...

I have been doing some teaching prep for the start of tomorrow evening's 'Liturgical Ministry in the Church' course. I know these words from Gregory Dix are well worn, but I am always struck by them.
"Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetich because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc—one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei—the holy common people of God."
Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Plain Speaking ...

John 10.22–30

Jesus says, “What the Father has given me”, which, if you look carefully at the reading is a reference to his flock, the church, “What the father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand” (John 10.30). Just pause for a minute and consider what Jesus is saying: He considers his church to be the most precious thing in the world. To which most of us reply… Really? Have you seen the church? This rag-tag assembly, hopelessly stuck in the past, it’s faded glory reminding us of a simpler age of faith, of the goodness of community, of all those things we romanticize about, but secretly are rather glad we left behind. Like a fossil, the church seems generally incapable of any great influence for good, and far too often, responsible for great ill. In truth, for most of us, the church is a cause of doubt rather than an inspiration for faith, hope and love. How on earth can Jesus say that the church is greater than all else?

The church has such a bad reputation these days that it is probably the last place you would choose to set out on a spiritual journey. Surely a place with fewer taboos, with less hierarchy, with less prejudice would be the community you would choose to sustain the journey of faith? A place where God was more unambiguously present? 

The crowd gathered around Jesus didn’t want ambiguity or cryptic stories about God’s kingdom which Jesus had been offering, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly’ (10.24). But faith is never like that. As we grow and wrestle with our faith, we all have times when all we want is clarity, ‘tell me plainly, God…’. The important thing to remember is that knowledge of God doesn’t come through plain, unarguably clear facts. Whilst we rightly strive to know God, God cannot be known fully through our hardest striving, or most clear thinking.

Knowledge of God comes as a gift from God.

The gift of knowing God comes to us in Jesus Christ. 

But to receive the gift of knowing God in Jesus, we have to open ourselves up to listening to Jesus. On the face of it, the crowd wanted to listen to Jesus, ‘Tell us’, they say, ‘are you the Messiah?’ But the truth was that they were only interested in listening if Jesus was willing to fit within the confines of their own preconceptions. But to listen whilst only being prepared to have our opinions confirmed, is really not to listen at all. To listen to Jesus means listening in such a way that we open ourselves up to being surprised by how different the God who shows himself to us in weakness and vulnerability of  this extraordinary human being truly is.

Jesus says that the place where we can hear his voice, follow him and receive his life, the place where we can  begin to open ourselves up to the counterintuitive way in which God works, is the weak, vulnerable, messy, disappointingly old-fashioned, much beloved, and amazingly beautiful community we call the church.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Rabbits, Reproduction, Resurrection...

For the last couple of years I have gone to the Easter vigil at Guildford Cathedral to present candidates for confirmation. Imagine a huge church, full of people, most of whom will be slightly puzzled by the strange and elaborate ritual which is going on around them, some of whom might have very little understanding of Christianity whatsoever - and there is the bishop, ready to give a sermon, something uplifting and memorable. Imagine my horror then, when last year, the preacher launched into a tirade… against the Easter Bunny. Don't get me wrong, I have a lot of respect for my bishop. But really… the Easter Bunny? … The poor, helpless, fluffy, pom-pom tailed, chocolate giving Rabbit of Easter? The bishop, by the way, preferd the humble Easter Egg as a symbol of the new life of the resurrection. Anyway, this attack on the Easter Bunny stuck with me all year. I suppose it was at least memorable! So as we are in the season of Easter, I wanted to present the case for the defense: Why is the Easter bunny, not only a legitimate symbol of the resurrection, but better an inherently better one than the Easter Egg.

I don’t really blame the bishop for preferring the egg to the bunny. The egg is rather obviously a symbol of new life. To appreciate the bunny as a resurrection symbol you have to think like someone from the middle ages. Medieval monks used to look at the world around them as closely as they could, they would look for signs of God in trees and plants, in mountains and stars. And, in ways which seem quite amusing anyone who has learnt even a modicum of science, they looked for God's fingerprints in the behaviour of the beasts, tracing the hand of God in his creation. They would compile books called bestiaries, which tried to unpack the religious significance of the beasts. The Pelican, for instance. A noble bird which the medieval monks believed, in times of famine, fed its young with blood which it would draw from its own breast – a symbol of the Son of God giving his body for food to the faithful. What an honorable creature the Pelican is, a fitting symbol of the Eucharist. Of course, they had got it all wrong but, hey, it was a good story. 

Then we have the somewhat less nobel rabbit. The rabbit doesn’t sacrifice its life, or selflessly serve its neighbor. The rabbit reproduces. In fact, the rabbit is such a prolific breeder that medieval monks thought that rabbits were hermaphrodites and could just reproduce whenever they wanted. So whilst the egg may be a symbol of new life, but the bunny is a symbol of abundant, overflowing, uncontrollably generative life. And that is why I think the Easter Bunny trumps the Easter Egg. An egg contains one, new life, but if your think like a medieval monk, a rabbit contains inexhaustible life. A rabbit isn’t just alive, it has the capacity to give life to lots and lots of other rabbits. This serves as an analogy of Jesus Christ, who when he was raised from the dead, was not merely alive, he was alive in such a way, with such an abundance of life, that he can give life to the whole universe. 

Easter was more than a miracle. It was the miracle of miracles. It was the miracle which makes all things miraculous.

Saturday, April 06, 2013


Revelation 1.4–8

We all know about the book of Revelation. It sits there, at the end of the bible, casting its somewhat ominous gaze into the future. Most people know it from peculiar books from America involving the sudden mid-flight disappearance of christian airline pilots, or from fragments of the book which appear in horror movies about the anti-christ or daemon possession – perhaps most notably for Guildfordians the 1976 Gregory Peck movie, The Omen, with its infamous scene at Guildford Cathedral. Everyone knows about the cryptic ‘666’ on the child, Damien’s scalp. And Patrick Troughton playing the slightly deranged priest, Fr. Brennan, quoting prophecy about the Anti-Christ to Damien’s father. We all know about the book of Revelation, and frankly, it all seems a bit odd. We all know about it, but we don’t know it. Which is why we are going to look at it today.

We are used to thinking of the book as a kind of prophecy, predicting weird and wacky events in the future. But instead of that, try thinking of it as letter. The opening words we read are the customary way that a first century person would start a letter. Listen to this opening sentence of an ancient letter: ‘Gaius Pliny to Septicius Clarus, his friend, greetings’, or St Paul’s first letter to Timothy, ‘Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope, to Timothy my true son in the faith: Grace, mercy and peace’. Now hear St. John, ‘John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace’. 

Revelation is a letter, and we are not the original intended recipients, which is why it often sounds completely mad to us. It is a letter written to seven churches in ancient Asia-minor, modern day Turkey. Churches which were facing persecution, and churches which also had some really normal church stuff going on. Christians were faithfully continuing God’s work despite struggles. They were having arguments about belief. Some of them were running after the latest religious trends. Perhaps most significant for us today, there was a good deal of apathy among the churches. Luke-warmness. Lack of commitment. I think it is quite encouraging, on a very basic level, to remember that the church was never perfect. The way we sometimes speak, you would think that the church started perfect and got progressively worse until you get to… well… now. But even at the very beginning, the church was a mess, and the church was also beautiful.

So this letter was written to give these Christians some perspective. Perspective which told them that in the midst of suffering and persecution, God hadn’t forgotten his people. That despite disunity and some of the grubbiness of human life, the church was still the place where Jesus’ resurrection life was bringing about new creation.

So what does this letter seek to lift the curtain on? What hidden truth does it seek to reveal?

Think about the opening greeting, John wishes ‘grace and peace’ for the seven churches. But this isn’t his grace and peace, it is God’s. Grace and peace aren’t words people would immediately associate with the book of Revelation. It seems to be a book more filled with divine judgement than divine mercy, or violence than peace. But perhaps we need to read the more ominous parts of Revelation in the light of these words. God’s purpose to the church and the world is not hostile, and this letter seeks to reinforce the message of God’s unshakeable love, and his ongoing project of bringing about peace.

The second thing to think about is the way that God is described. God is the God who is. This sentence is the most mangled bit of Greek in the whole book. First of all, if you or I were writing this we would probably go in chronological order, past to future. We would probably say ‘Grace to you and peace, from he who was, who is, and who is to come’. But John messes about with the obvious order. He says, ‘Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come.’ 

For us, the present moment is always experienced as part of a process, moving from the past to the future. But for God, everything is the present moment. Past, future, everything is in the present tense. We move from ‘A’ to ‘B’ to ‘C’, and the trouble with ‘A’ to ‘B’ to ‘C’ beings, is that we struggle for perspective on life. We can’t change the past but we dwell on it. We can’t know the future but we obsess about it, and all of that living in the past or the future tends to make the present unbearable. But God, John says, isn’t moving from ‘A’ to ‘B’ to ‘C’, ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ all exist to God as a present moment. A standing now. God exceeds all creation, even as he spreads wide his arms to embrace past, present and future. John wants us to set our lives, our triumphs and failures, our joys and sorrows, and every experience we have in between, in the context of God, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. The one who holds all our times in his powerful embrace.

Here is where the grammar gets even more wierd. I might have written that God ‘is, was and will be’, all of which are tenses of the verb ‘to be’. But John writes that God ‘is, was, and is to come’. This brings us to the power of John’s message, because, like us, the first century churches were dealing with the dissonance of proclaiming that in the resurrection Jesus really has triumphed over the forces of darkness, and living in a world where those forces still feel as strong as ever. When church is going badly, or for that matter when church is going well, how do we avoid the twin pitfalls of triumphalism or despair? Not by trying to make church better, but by remembering who God is, the one who is to come. The work Easter is God’s and not ours, we are his co-workers, but not in such a way as the final triumph of good over evil depends on our brilliant plans. God is the beginning, and God is the end. He will come and complete his work.