To remind people who use the website that many of the Sunday sermons have been uploaded to the Sermons page of the website so you can read them after the service in your own time. The upload may be a day or two after the service.
Sunday 11 July 2021: Barrowden and Zoom.
‘God’s plan… to unite all things in Christ’. Ephesians 1.10.
A young curate once asked Archbishop Ramsey what he should preach about. “Preach about God and preach about 20 minutes”, was the archbishop’s reply. So, it is God today, not Wimbledon or cup finals, though both might get a mention!
Our scripture passage this morning (Eph. 1. 3 – 14) pours out of Paul as if he were an excited and breathless young child telling us something special. In the original Greek, the whole passage is just one sentence! And this message is important: Christ is the unifying factor for the whole world. All things find their home and meaning in and through Christ!
I have a grandson who is similarly seized by his passion for litter-picking. It is almost an obsession if it were not for his wide-ranging knowledge of the recycling process. From an early age he would rush around the garden, or the park or the aircraft picking up litter, especially cigarette stubs. All went into the litter bin. It was hard work taking him for a walk!
St. Paul is also passionate to show us that all things belong ‘in Christ’: not just male and female, black and white. His vision is greater than that. This vision covers heaven and earth, the natural world (where we are just realising our responsibilities). But it goes even further. He is talking about the internal harmony of us humans – the sins we love and hate simultaneously – but also the greatest test of harmony, the relationship between God and humanity – a unity which has been sliding away from us in the past century.
There is an irony in all of this. Paul was writing this letter to the Ephesian Church from Rome where he was in prison. He must have been seized by this vison of unity in his prison cell. He knew much about the Roman world and how it had brought together many warring cities, states and nations. He was proud of his Roman citizenship and realized that Rome and the Pax Romana was actually creating the unity to which he was being directed. If fallible Roman Emperors could bring about such change, then the power of Christ and his Church could achieve even more!
This is some agenda! It certainly needs divine intervention to address it – and that is what we have but God has called us to attend to it as well as himself.
‘Christ has no other hands but your hands to do his work today.
No other hands but your hands to guide men on their way.
No other lips but your lips to tell them why he died;
No other love but your love to win them to his side’. (St. Theresa)
And how do we do it? Well, step by step would be a start.
I used to regularly visit the ecumenical centre of Taizé in France which is visited by thousands of enquiring young people each year from all over the world. There are few rules but visitors must attend worship 3 times a day. As the crowds approach the rather ugly hanger-like church, young people hold placards in a variety of languages urging silence. The church is called The Church of Reconciliation and the dominant element in the worship is silence. Perhaps that is where we should start, in silence, seeking God’s direction or affirmation.
There is an excitement in the way Paul writes about this calling. It matches the excitement of Emma Raducanu, the A level student who was a wildcard player at Wimbledon this year. Although she withdrew, her sheer delight in being chosen was obvious.
We did not choose God; God chose us and sometimes our delight matches that choice. Joy is infectious. It is a response to our calling and makes our work of reconciliation easier.
Through our baptism, says St. Paul, we are both holy and blameless. How does that work? Well, holiness suggests difference, the difference which following Christ inevitably brings. As one bishop neatly put it, ‘It’s not that Christianity makes good men better but whether it can make bad men holy’. But who can be blameless in this world? It relates to sacrifice: only the best being offered to God. Aiming for that in all departments of our life will help us in our calling as reconcilers.
So, our calling is to be reconcilers in different directions. I have spent some time baby-sitting in the last few weeks. Some of us are gifted in this way; others are not! I hugely admire the way a mother or grand-mother manages to distract a grumpy child back to happiness, reconciled to itself.
Think if you will of the reconciling work of Marcus Rashford. He used his influence to speak truth to power by encouraging the Prime Minister to extend the provision of free school meals during the COVID crisis. Each of us is in a position of influence too. How will you use your influence to encourage reconciliation? It may be in the direction of the green agenda, race relations, healing family rifts, engagement in regional politics or acting as an evangelist, bringing someone closer into the reach of God’s caring hand. We all have this responsibility as Christians. It is both a privilege and a challenge.
The work of unity is too important to be left to the clergy or politicians. It must involve us all, at whatever level we can reach. Amen.
Easter VII 2021: Tixover and Zoom.
“and the lot fell on Matthias” Acts.1.26.
We have just been to the polls and changed the life of one poor chap who will now be the Police Commissioner for our region. With a small cross on a piece of paper, we will have done our civic duty. Can we assume that our man is equipped for the job? And what about the Hartlepool By-election? Does the massive swing guarantee that the new MP will be able to cut the mustard in Westminster? Isn’t this voting business a bit precarious?
The Election of Matthias.
We have just heard about another vote in the first century AD. Two candidates were put up to replace Judas who didn’t make the cut. The Church needed 12 apostles to follow the pattern of the 12 tribes of Israel but would Matthias be any good? ‘The lot fell on Matthias’. We don’t know much about him after the election so we can assume that he kept his nose clean. For what it’s worth, you may like to know that the Greek for ‘lot’ – that’s the result of the voting – is “cleros” which is rather close to our word, ‘clergy’. It reminds me of a rather poor joke: that clergy are rather like manure. In a heap they do no good at all, but spread arounds they might just be of some use.
From our reading this morning we do know that the two candidates had known Jesus. It was a condition that they had been in his company for some while to absorb his values and temperament. And before the vote we are told that 120 persons took time out to pray before casting their lots. This suggests that the election was inspired by God in some way. It was not haphazard.
We don’t know much about Matthias but one biblical scholar tells us that he was ‘of secondary importance’(Blunt, 1923). What does this mean? Does it mean that he was inadequate or just a late comer to the larger band of disciples who followed Jesus around the Holy Land?
We are about to begin our Church elections for wardens and PCC members. They will be conducted along similar lines to the election of Matthias. The church community has been praying for some time now that the right choices will be made to allow this parish/benefice to continue the ministry of Jesus among us. We all tend to idolize previous clergy or wardens or M.P’s and think that the present generation can’t be as good but that is not borne out by the facts. Our current crop of wardens and PCC members do an excellent job in conditions which have changed enormously from 20 years ago. They are not ‘of secondary importance’. No one is perfect but our elected representatives – especially the wardens – are there to do a precise job, “to be foremost in representing the laity and in cooperating with the incumbent.” (Canon Law) That is a tricky line to follow but we have had on our screens just recently an excellent model of sensitive service. The 3 main characters in ‘Line of Duty’ were appointed to catch ‘bent coppers’ but as fallible human beings as well as serving police officers they were prone to all manner of problems – failed marriages, financial issues, drugs – but they were aware of that. Their job was to be honest about themselves and honest with those with whom they dealt.
Jesus didn’t choose saints to be his followers. They were rough fishermen and dodgy tax collectors.
They were appointed to do a job: to make saints of us and each other under the direction of the Holy Spirit.
We have to remember this imperfect nature of humanity when we think of standing for the PCC or warden. We do it from our flawed humanity, not as saints. It is silly to say, ‘I’m not good enough’ and arrogant to think that we should be saints already!
We have just celebrated the Ascension of Christ. His restricted presence in Jerusalem is now to be found everywhere and in the most unlikely people. That is why I am confident in our wardens and PCC members. I have to listen to them and them to me. In that way, we can discern what course we are to take through life in this exciting and holy community. To God be the glory. Amen.
TALK FOR EASTER 5B 2021
One of the things that I enjoyed very much when we were in France was to see the vineyards, especially in Epernay where the champagne grapes are grown. One year we went later in the year and saw the grapes harvested and great lorry loads tipped into the crusher. The end result was good too!
In Biblical times vines were also very important. The ground needed to be prepared and the plants nurtured, with the vines two metres apart to allow for growth. They were pruned and trained in different ways. The branches which were cut off were useless because the wood is too soft for it to be used for anything and so can simply be destroyed by burning. The branches which remained were strong and bore fruit. Sometimes the bunches of grapes were so large that they were carried on a staff between two men. The vineyards were often guarded by watch towers and vines were one of the seven species God gave to Israel in the promised land. Wine was not for pleasure but was often drunk with the stale water from the cisterns.
The vines were also used symbolically for God’s people of Israel. The fruitful vine represented obedience to God but Jeremiah showed the other side. He wrote in ch 2 v 21: I planted you like a choice vine from the very best seed. But look what you have become! You are like a rotten, worthless vine. Didn’t mince his words about Israel’s wickedness!
So the Jews were familiar with the symbolism of the vine and here we have Jesus saying that he is the true vine and we are the branches and can either be fruitful or be cut off. What a terrible picture of being cut off from Christ!
The word which stands out in the reading we heard from St John is abide. It is used eight times in the few verses and has a great impact. It has several meanings: to bear, tolerate; to withstand; to await; to accept without objection. When Jesus asks us to abide in him he is inviting us to remain in a deep relationship with him, to accept his invitation. It is a most beautiful invitation!
I am the true vine is one of the seven I am sayings of Jesus. I am the way, the truth and the life, the gate and the good shepherd among the others. He states that we are the branches and we have the choice as to whether we are useless or fruitful. We can refuse his invitation, we can accept it and pay lip service to him or we can run away from him. How often do we do these things?
So how do we abide in him? Jesus spent much of his time in solitary places with his Father and refreshed both his relationship with his Father and gained strength for what was happening in his life. To maintain our relationship with Christ we need to make time to be with him. Relationships do not flourish unless the effort is made to keep in touch and that is what it is like with Christ. Prayer can be difficult and some say that we should only pray when we feel like it! W.E.Sangster quotes Forbes Robinson as saying : Do not mind about feelings…We do not want to feel better and stronger; we want to be better and stronger. We would not miss an appointment with a friend so how can we be less courteous to our Lord?
We must also be ready for the pruning fork. If we look at our innermost selves we will probably see a very murky looking place where there is much that needs to be sorted out. We cannot do that on our own because it is too easy to continue as we always have; we like a quiet life. That is not what Christ offers us but he offers us so much more.
We are now at the 5th week of Easter and we need to sustain that experience of utmost joy we shared on Easter Sunday. The Sunday after Easter is known as Low Sunday because it almost seems like an anti-climax and as Easter fades it is too easy to slip back into our old ways. But Jesus offers us great love to help us retain the momentum. He invites us to abide in him, to remain in his love and that involves obedience. We stray far from him and so we must allow him to prune out whatever is bad in our lives and accept that, knowing that he loves each one of us more than we will know. Let us accept his command to abide in him and he in us.
Risen Lord, you are the true vine and we are the branches. By your Spirit, produce the fruit of love, joy, peace, and patience in us for others to taste and enjoy. Keep us from hanging on to love for ourselves. Prune all selfishness from us and fill us with your love. Amen.
The Beautiful Game?
Sunday 25 April 2021.
St. John, Ch. 10. vv. 11 – 18.
This last week has seen the world of football caught with its trousers down. What has been revealed is a shocking display of greed as several of the top teams in the country announced that they would be forming a European Super League with other foreign clubs. The League would be self-contained with lots of money for itself and little if any chance for smaller clubs to join, effectively cutting off the element of competition which is both attractive and motivational. The top of the soccer pyramid would be creamed off.
The outcry was immediate and overpowering. The thugs were taken by surprise and the whole idea of a Super League imploded within 72 hours.
We know that the best football is to be found in the industrial heartlands of the country where the game gives hope, colour, entertainment and identity to so many people who have been historically robbed of these vital ingredients.
Of course, there is a back storey: excessive wages, income from gate-money stopped with clubs and their owners running out of money. A new source of income was vital. If not, the whole organization would need a serious review. That is where we are today.
This whole sorry story is judged by the parable of the Good Shepherd which St. John (10. 11 – 18) shares with us today. At the first sign of trouble, the hired hand runs away but The Good Shepherd, totally committed to his flock, will do anything for their welfare, including laying down his own life.
As we will know from our own rural context, rogue shepherds do not last long around here. Their insincerity is exposed by the demands of the job.
So, are the owners of our football clubs in it for the money or for the future of the game? This row exposes the rogue owners. It’s not that owners and directors should not expect a fee but it must be proportionate.
The uproar this week shows just how far removed some of the club’s owners are from their clubs and the fan-base. Foreign owners will struggle to understand the culture of our soccer clubs and the furious passions which they evoke. And there is a lesson here for any potential leader: they need to be close to their community.
The image below is of a 3rd century Syrian sculpture of The Good Shepherd. See how closely his hair is identified with the fleece of his sheep!
Pope Francis tells his pastors that they must be willing to take on the smell of the sheep if their work is to be effective. By this intimacy their leadership will prove to be genuine.
This parable of The Good Shepherd is a damning judgement on some of our football leaders: they neither know their players nor the fans. The revolt was inevitable.
The parable ends by the shepherd being willing to lay down his life for the sheep in true humility. There are foreign owners who act in the best interests of their soccer clubs and the communities they serve. They are generous and sensitive. Without them the clubs would fold. However, this crisis does illuminate the cracks in the system and a thorough review is now overdue. There is talk of a suitability test for potential owners with the fans getting a voice. That can be very exciting and bring a greater wholeness to the world of soccer.
The Good Shepherd may not yet be redundant. Amen.
Easter III 2021.
The Duke and the Wounded Church.
The life, death and funeral of The Duke of Edinburgh will have been much in our minds and in our prayers recently. His qualities have been paraded before us by the media and his weaknesses have also been explored but what I wish to do this morning is to explore his ability to spot weakness and make it into an opportunity for these relate to our gospel this morning.
The whole world admires the way Prince Philip has modelled his life to support the Queen in her duties. He belongs to the OSB Club: One Step Behind. As we all know, this came at a great cost to the Prince and his naval career. However, out of this grew three important initiatives which have had a lasting effect upon our culture generally and young lives in particular.
The first initiative is the creation of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme in 1956. It grew out of the Duke’s experience at Gordonstoun School where he discovered discipline and the value of initiative. It also came at a time when post-war youth, with no chance of conscription, could find an alternative to the BP organizations without the need for a uniform.
Secondly, the Duke’s enquiring mind and restless faith wanted to explore the truth behind the pat answers he often heard in sermons. In 1966 he teamed up with The Dean of Windsor to open St. George’s House, a conference centre focussed on the rhythm of prayer and worship in the chapel for leaders of society and senior clergy to discuss at leisure some of the most pressing problems of the day. Courses lasted up to a month and it was an opportunity not only to nurture wisdom through debate but also to show how integrated matters of religion were to all elements of life, business and politics.
Finally there is the Duke’s interest in nature conservation where he was way ahead of his time. He became president of the World Wildlife Fund in 1961 and for its 25th anniversary he took it to Assisi for the celebration, neatly linking the care of nature to the creator God whom he worshipped.
These three concerns – young people, integrated faith and conservation – were all overlooked at the time the duke made them priorities. They were wounds in the side of humanity into which he poured energy and bound them up into something stronger.
Our reading today (Luke 24. 36 – 48) takes us to the end of St. Luke’s gospel and records the appearance of the Risen Lord to the frightened disciples in the upper room. His wounds are still obvious and yet Jesus can greet them with words of peace. There is continuity here between the crucified one and the Risen Lord. The wounds confirmed belief for doubting Thomas but they have been taken as even more important to the emerging church. They saw those wounds as points of future healing. In Peter’s First Letter (2.24) – which is widely seen as a baptism sermon – we are told, ‘By his wounds you have been healed’.
The duke’s vison embraced the weaknesses of his day and made them stronger. He was drawn to them, sympathized with them, saw their potential and built them up. I have known clergy who were so wounded that their hope of preferment was small but because of their weaknesses they made great pastors.
The Wounded Church.
In a good year, we would hope to take a summer holiday high up in the Swiss Alps, on the edges of a ski resort called Anzere. Each Sunday we would join the main mass of the day. It was a modern church with a striking crucifix hanging over the altar, showing the crucified one with his body lacerated all over with gashes. It was not a comfortable sight – and neither is our current church with its obvious defects: child-abuse, racism, sexism and many other isms, including you and me.
There is an important truth here: the crucified body was not perfect; the risen body still bore the wounds and now The Body of Christ, The Church, is very obviously not perfect. Through his wounds, the Risen Lord can identify with our weaknesses. How can we make them our strengths? Think how odious the church would be if it were perfect! Who would identify with it? And yet there are elements in church and society who want a perfect church and use it as a reason not to get involved.
As a church we must be aware of our weaknesses and seek to build them up, just like the duke did in his vision to strengthen society as he saw it. Our aim is to be perfect just as our heavenly father is perfect and to cling to that vision. But perfection is different for each of us, just as a full egg-cup differs from a brimming reservoir.
One of the most painful symbols for me in the Christian Church is the breaking of bread at the heart of our Eucharist. Yet, if the body is not broken, others cannot share. It challenges our narrow parochialism, our poverty of passion, our reluctance to invite others to the party. These are some of the weaknesses I can identify. You will have your own observations. How do we turn them into our strengths? Amen.
Easter II 2021.
‘Line of Duty’ (St. John 21. 15 – 19)
Line of Duty.
So here we are, in the HQ of AC 12, the anti-corruption wing of the Police Force. It’s Sunday night in ‘Line of Duty’, the latest police drama and the air is full of intrigue. Sly glances are shared among the officers for a cloud of suspicion hovers over the whole force which is charged with rooting out bent coppers. The camera pans into the office of Superintendent Ted Hastings – the boss – who is talking to his trusty colleague Inspector Steve Arnott. This is not an interview situation in the glass box where two or three officers grill a suspect mercilessly with a formal recording. No. This is a discussion between two of the main and trusted characters. Nevertheless, Hastings is probing the reliability of his assistant in the light of unusual meetings which have been reported. How trustworthy is Arnott? Much will depend upon the answer. Hastings wants to support Arnott for another series so he does not hold back on a variety of probing but friendly questions.
St. John’s Gospel, Conclusion.
In our bible reading today, the Risen Lord takes Simon Peter aside to quiz him. Peter has been out fishing and the two have just had breakfast together. The other disciples are seated around the fire and Jesus takes Peter aside: the dodgy disciple. Here is a young man who has shown much promise but he is a hot-head. He picks fights when it is not necessary; he swears undying allegiance to Jesus one minute and then, at the trial, he denies Jesus three times. And the cock crowed.
So Jesus takes Peter aside and puts these three questions to him. He asks if Peter loves him. But in true Hastings fashion, each question is gently nuanced. Jesus uses two different Greek words for love: agape, meaning unconditional love and philio meaning friendship. Most translations gloss over this difference but St. John chooses his words precisely and for a purpose so I have used the J.B. Phillips translation because it makes clear the difference:
Jesus says twice to Peter, ‘Do you love me with all your being’? And Peter replies twice, ‘You know that I am your friend, (I like you, we meet in the pub together on occasions’).
Jesus notes the distinction which Peter makes so he lowers the bar for the 3rd question and uses Peter’s word, philio, friendship. This gets Peter annoyed. He is ‘deeply hurt’. And why? Peter is honest. He doubts his ability to love his friend unconditionally and he has been rumbled.
Now I hope you will forgive me for this departure into biblical criticism. Perhaps it is self-indulgence on my part but what is being laid out before us is part of our human condition. How trustworthy can we be – in our job, our DIY, our marriage, our faith, our diligence in the garden? Hastings needs to know just where Arnott stands for the continuing of the operation. Now he knows. He has to make a decision. So it is with Jesus. Can Peter carry the next chapter of the gospel on his shoulders, given that his commitment is not total? We know the answer to that.
So what does Jesus do? He gives Peter a job! Jesus doesn’t get the answer he wants but Peter’s commitment will grow as he does a job. And as Peter answers the three questions, Jesus increases the responsibility that he expects from Peter: feeding lambs, caring for sheep, growing the whole flock.
We too are challenged in our discipleship by this passage. Where do you position yourself? Are we merely onlookers, well-wishers or do we express our commitment to the Risen Lord in some way? Yes, we are all followers – that is the last thing that Jesus says to Peter, ‘Follow me!’ – but what else is the Risen Lord asking of us? Are we buttresses or pillars in our local church? What does it need for its further development? We will all have our views on that one but if we keep them to ourselves we will get nowhere together!
In this Easter season, people change. The confidence in the Risen Lord, the support of the Holy Spirit enables us to lift our commitment just a little. Peter’s gaffs for the gospel fizzle out and he learns to carry the weight of the fledgling church on his shoulders precisely because he knew his weaknesses as well as gathering knowledge of his strengths.
Do I need to press the point further? No, the Holy Spirit, working in your heart will do that. Arnott will go back to his desk and suck his pencil; Hastings will pace up and down in his transparent office –but – please God – the show will go on. Amen.
Easter Day 2021. Barrowden/Zoom.
The saintly Archbishop of Paris, preaching on Easter Day, recounted a story of 3 young lads who decided to annoy their local parish priest. In they went to the confessional, one after the other, no doubt telling whacky stories of imagined evil to their Father–in-God. As the last boy was about to leave the confessional the priest said to him, “For your penance, I want you to stand in the middle of the church, look up at the giant crucifix and say, ‘I know you died for me but I don’t care a damn’.“ The boy went to the centre of the church, looked up at the crucifix and began the sentence but couldn’t finish it. “I know that story to be true said the archbishop. I was that boy.”
People change and Easter is all about change. Certainly this year, with the roadmap underway, we are very conscious that change is in the air. So it was when St. Luke tells this story (Acts 10. 34 – 43) about Peter being invited to a party at the house of Cornelius, the Roman centurion. Peter is the one who denied Christ 3 times at the trial but now he is a changed man; he has picked himself up out of despair. He is taken to the centurion’s house and dares to cross the threshold for it was forbidden for Jews to mingle with gentiles. No matter, Peter was on a mission and begins his speech by assuring Cornelius and his family that God shows no partiality. Christ is for them – for Romans – just as he was for Jews and anyone who wishes to know him.
Now the Acts of the Apostles is one of the most racy books in the bible. It is about the rapid spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome, yes, but it is also written by St. Luke who has a strong interest in the outsider, the stranger, women, the poor. So this story of Cornelius is about a centurion and his family on which change is about to fall. He and his guests are about to begin life again as Christians.
Christ the Stranger.
Peter’s party speech in the house of Cornelius compresses many details in the life of Christ but he labours the point about the resurrection appearances. Christ appears not to all but to some who are chosen as witnesses: those who could give evidence about the Risen Lord. As we also know, those witnesses were not always sure of the evidence. Mary, at the empty tomb very early in the morning mistook Christ for the gardener, a stranger. The apostles, gathered together in the upper room with the doors locked where frightened rigid when Christ appeared among them. His appearance had changed though they recognized his wounds. Could this be the Risen Lord? They went on worship him in faith, ‘though some doubted’ as St. Matthew says. Then we have the couple on the road to Emmaus who only recognized Jesus when he said the blessing over the meal. EThey scampered back to tell their mates about The Risen Lord. Finally, the disciples return to their fishing habits, but who was this chap on the shore with helpful hints about fishing from the other side of the boat? Could that stranger be Jesus? Well, it was. He welcomes them ashore and cooks breakfast for them.
Someone has described the work of a priest as one who comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comforted. This adage could well be applied to The Acts of the Apostles.
Peter goes into the very heart of an alien family to talk about Jesus. Cornelius courts him but he could just as easily have crucified him. It was a risky visit. Of course, the world–changing encounter in Acts is between Stephen – who was arrested for his faith – and a stranger called Saul who stood and watched the stoning of Stephen. Later, he was contacted by those early Christians and his conversion to Christ gave added thrust to the work of evangelisation.
The Acts of the Apostles is full of such risks, people crossing boundaries for the sake of truth and joy and satisfaction. We need only think of the thousands last year who took a risk to take part in vaccine trials around the world, resulting in the most amazing progress in science and safety. Their risk resulted in our security. Such risk-taking allows us to break down barriers and this is just what happened in those early days of the church as it suddenly exploded in growth.
If this risk-taking is seen as part of church history only, then we are the most to be pitied. It has to be part of our church growth strategy too. It is so easy to do but requires an adjustment to our thinking. We have to shift our weight onto the front foot. Let me share a clear example with you. Last week, two of our churches – and probably their hard-working churchwardens – distributed Palm Crosses to every church-going family in the village. Commendable, yes. But why stop there? There will be other people in those villages just waiting for permission to interact with the community of faith but we don’t allow it! We erect our own barriers then wring our hands about not growing the church!
Now I acknowledge that there is a slight risk of rejection but in our villages it is not likely to result in crucifixion. Christ died for those too who live beyond those doors which weren’t visited!
When Peter visited Cornelius he was acutely aware of the risk to life and the danger of crossing cultural boundaries. But the man who denied Christ had been forgiven and was joyful in the presence of the Risen Lord. He was happy to take risks for Christ. We must stand with him. Amen.
Sunday 21st March 2021.
The concept of Sacrifice is not popular today. Was it ever? Well, yes, it was central to the culture of Jesus’s time – but not today. As we work our way into the 21st century, ‘sacrifice’ is not on the agenda. We are happy to acquire more security, more wealth, more of almost everything, though the pandemic has put a check on that. For during the pandemic we have seen our carers put their own lives and the lives of their families on the line for the good of the whole. No need for elaboration there except perhaps to define ‘sacrifice’ as a giving up of life or possessions for a greater good.
Religious people nibble at the concept of sacrifice because it is in their vocabulary. We give up chocolate for Lent; we sacrifice a morning to do the flowers or clean the church but we do not consider it a sacrifice to take the children to the cinema or to volunteer in the shop That is duty, joy even; entertainment certainly. However, some people are called to really sacrifice their lives to care for a dependent relative or to go to war for the good of the nation. Here we get closer to the biblical idea of sacrifice.
The Letter to the Hebrews.
The scripture we have just heard from The Letter to the Hebrews (5. 5 – 10) takes us to the heart of the Jewish concept of sacrifice. The letter was written to conservative-minded Jewish converts to Christianity who were thinking of lapsing in the face of imminent persecution. The writer uses imagery which they would readily understand about sacrifice. They would know that it is only priests who sacrifice and on the Day of Atonement it was only the High Priest who was allowed to go into the Holy of Holies. There he would wash the altar with the blood of a bull. Then, placing his hands on a goat, transfer the sins of the people onto the scapegoat which was then driven out into the wilderness. Here, the sacrifice of bull and goat absolved the Jews of their sins so that they could be at-one with God.
Another instance: central to the Jewish Feast of The Passover is a spotless lamb whose blood is smeared on the doorposts of their houses as a sign that the Angel of Death should pass them over.
There are many other examples of sacrifice in the Jewish culture, all of which are about bridging that gap between God and humankind. Archbishop Michael Ramsey suggested that for his theological students to understand the messy nature of sacrifice, a bull should be sacrificed on the college lawns. That would make a mess of the grass!
Some of these examples of Jewish sacrifice have been rolled together and applied to the work of Christ on the cross. From the first of these examples we can take the form of a man who effects the sacrifice in the Holy of Holies and from the second, a lamb but a perfect lamb used at The Passover.
For prayer, for action.
Some of you will remember a conversation after our service 2 weeks ago. It focussed on a popular hymn that made much of an angry God venting his wrath on human-kind. As clewed-up contemporary Christians we were unhappy about propitiating an angry God. The hymn was cheekily tweaked so that we could sing it last week with Jane leading the way, obviously singing her heart out on mute.
Our reading from Hebrews draws out some elements of sacrifice relevant to Christians today.
Firstly, Christ was ‘appointed’ as a priest by God so the sacrifice is part of God’s plan to sacrifice himself for us. Just as the bull and the goat were chosen on the Day of Atonement, God chose Christ to be the sacrificial victim. God bears the pain of loss for us through Christ, the perfect offering. So, it is God’s work.
Secondly, the passage reminds us of Christ’s suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane, wrestling with his vocation to be an obedient son in the face of adversity. Here is an identification with our own experiences as fallible human beings caught up in the process of service and sacrifice.
So we can see from these two observations that the death of Christ was a part of God’s plan from the beginning and continues to be so. God takes the initiative. God is the rescuer of human kind. However, we can’t just sit back and do nothing in response to the cross. Jesus himself wrestled with sin and temptation in the Garden so humankind is drawn into the action, following Christ as our exemplar. Psalm 51 balances it thus:
“For you will not delight in sacrifice or I would give it;
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken
And contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” Psalm 51. 16,17
The notion of sacrifice is complicated. Justice cannot be done to it in a short address nor to its modification by the sacrifice of Christ.
But let me reinforce the major points of God’s initiative and humanity’s response by reminding you of ‘The Herald of Free Enterprise’, a tragedy which happened to this cross-channel ferry in 1987. The bow doors were left open as it left the port of Zeebrugge and immediately capsized in icy waters. Panic ensued. To enable some passengers to get from a lower deck to an upper deck a man reached across the rails to form a human bridge for others to climb over to safety. That was his initiative, his sacrifice and an escape-route for those who could take it. Amen.
The Folly of the Cross
Lent III, 7 March 2021.
This painting, to be found in St. Mary’s Cathedral Edinburgh, is particularly haunting. It shows a distraught woman, creeping into the back of the cathedral whilst a service is proceeding at the other end. The woes of the world are on her shoulders but the distance between her and any comfort seems an eternity away. And yet, she becomes aware of the presence of Christ by her side, standing with her in her agony.
The painting speaks to us on many levels but I share it with you this morning as it seems to fit into our context: a roadmap out of the pandemic and Lent, almost halfway through. Both destinations – the 21st June and even Easter – seem so far away, as do the problems which so often beset us and seem so acute in this particular Lent.
So where do we find Christ’s presence, who promises to be with us to the end of time and so powerfully expressed in this painting? From early times Christians have found the answer in the form of the cross but how does that work for us?
The Folly of the Cross.
When Jesus was young, a revolt took place around Jerusalem. Three prophets claimed to be The Messiah. The Romans dealt swiftly with the uprising, crucifying 2000 bandits who were strung up along the roads.
Jerusalem was a turbulent place, then as now, and crosses were common signs of torture. As we know, Jesus incurred the wrath of Romans, Jews and Greeks at the end of his short ministry. The cross on which he was impaled was a repulsive sign but so was his gospel. It made no intellectual sense to Greeks who sought wisdom. To the Jews it was a desecration: how could their Holy God commune with human kind and be killed on a cross? It was a scandal. So the power of the cross cannot be known purely through brains or debate or the threat of power but to this poor woman, the cross was revealed in her poverty at the back of a northern cathedral. She knew the pain of the crucified one but also His presence. As St. Paul says in our reading this morning (1Cor. 1.18 – 25) the presence of Christ is available to all who humbly search for his support, whatever their status, gender or creed.
There are many theories about how the cross saves us but none of them will make any sense without the resurrection. It is through suffering and death ‘in Christ’ that we will come to know the quality of life beyond, in him. Yes, the cross is a scandal to some, a sign of contradiction to others but for many, to own a cross or to gaze upon one is a powerful action of comfort and healing. It shows the simple truth that Christ is to be found with us at our lowest and most needy.
Shakespeare personified the power of the cross in the image of the fool, the character who through humour or by tough love point out the truth to those who are blind. Feste or Falstaff prefigure The Fool in King Lear who sees straight through the wicked daughters and comforts the old man in his distress.
Living the Cross
Christians believe that the cross shows the ultimate gift of God’s love, that a man – this man – lays down his life for us, his friends. And we are called to do the same, but how difficult it is!
A Sunday-School teacher once described the cross as an ‘I’ crossed out. This wisdom points to the humility required to live the cross in our own day. It doesn’t fit well with those chasing impressive goals. For some it will mean going the extra mile, kissing a frog, sticking with a challenging partner, taking the pain of an illness to the foot of the cross. We might think of Nelson Mandela as a role model here, having served 27 years in prison with no retaliation.
Hospital chaplains know the value of the Holding Cross for those who are undergoing acute pain. It is another way of identifying with the Christ who suffered for us all on the cross. As we consider today’s agenda of ‘levelling up’ in the light of the budget, the words of Gandhi are worth pondering: “Live more simply that others may simply live.”
Our target of Easter will come soon enough – and earlier than 21st June – but it will require us to accept with humility the restrictions placed upon us for the good of all. I am a slow learner in the school of unconditional love but the cross as a sign of self-denial is a fine teaching instrument for those who have eyes to see. Amen.