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Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter

Acts 4.32-35, Psalm 133, John 20.19-31 (Year B, 2021)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

There are a number of Resurrection appearances by Christ.  They are so extraordinary, so dramatic, that we often get caught up mentally staring at the faces of those reacting to Jesus: Peter leaping off the boat to swim to shore (John 21.7-8), the disciples on the road to Emmaus, their hearts filled with fire (Luke 24.13-35), and most famous of all, Doubting Thomas, and his exclamation of ‘My Lord and my God!’ (John 20.28).  These expressions of delight, amazement and awe are so compelling that we can forget who they are about, that quiet, calm presence of Jesus.  So today let’s turn the focus on Christ.

Firstly, Jesus can go and be anywhere: the beach, on a road as we walk away, in a room where the doors are locked.  Jesus meets us where we are, and guides us, with kindness and compassion, to where God yearns for us to be.

Secondly, Jesus shared the peace.  Christ’s peace is ‘not as the world gives’ (John 14.27), meaning that it is something beyond political or military peace.  Christ’s peace cannot be bought, bartered or fought for.  It is a gift from God, and means a spiritual security of being right with God.  One of the Messiah’s titles was the Prince of Peace, and so through Christ we are reminded that we have a new relationship with God, where we have been reconciled and saved.

So impactful was this sharing of peace by Christ that it became an identifier of the early Church.  Romans 16.16 , 1 Corinthians 16.20, 2 Corinthians 13.12 and 1 Thessalonians 5.26 all speak of greeting one another with a holy kiss, and the last two use phrases along the lines of ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.’  1 Peter 5.14 also mentions the kiss and ends the letter ‘Peace to all of you who are in Christ.’

The sharing of the holy kiss of peace was more than just a greeting.  It was part of the identity of the community, shaped in and by Christ.  The community was distinctive because of how they behaved, such as sharing their possessions (Acts 4.32-35) and this lived out peace.  

I’ve mentioned in the past how the word ‘Goodbye’ is a contraction of ‘God bless ye’. And when we say ‘Rest in peace’ about someone who has died, we are actually saying, ‘Rest in the peace of Christ’. I do think if we are intentional about including greetings and partings such as ‘Peace be with you’, it would transform our community and relationship interactions.  Such words bind us together in our identity, which is in Christ.

Furthermore, there is a Latin phrase, ‘lex orandi, lex credendi’, which basically means ‘what we pray is what we believe.’  So if anyone asks you what the Anglican Christian church believes, point them to our worship.  The peace was traditionally part of our liturgy, mentioned all the way back to Justin Martyr.  In Britain it disappeared in 1552, but finally returned in 1928 in the Book of Common Prayer, and officially with the Alternative Service Book and remains now in Common Worship.

It’s worth noting here that the liturgical Peace is not a coffee break, and nor do you have to speak to everyone.  Rather focus on the person you are sharing the peace with, and try not to let your eyes slide over their shoulder as you look for the next person!  It’s absolutely fine to simply share the Peace with the person besides you, and in front or behind.  Come every week and share the Peace with 4 new people, and by the end of the year you’ll have shared it with everyone!  

And note how if you divide the service into two parts, the Peace mirrors the Confession at the start of the service.  So by the time we receive Holy Communion, we have been made right with God, and with each other.  As a community worshipping the Lord, we are one.

And thirdly, and finally, Jesus breathed on the disciples.  The breathing is highly symbolic here.  In our Lent Group we looked at the vision of Ezekiel, of the Valley of Dry Bones, and how God breathed new life into the bones, which represented Israel.  Think too of Genesis 2.7, as God breathed life into Adam, or the Wisdom of Solomon 15.11, which describes the creation of humans by God who “inspired them with active souls and breathed a living spirit into them.”  And so in Christ’s action we see the gift of the Spirit as the beginning of the new creation.  

Taken together, we begin to see the Resurrection for it is – ever-present, a gift of grace beyond all understanding, a new creation, drawing us into that new relationship with God, where our hearts find their true rest in Christ.  

Peace be with you.

Amen.

(Artwork: ‘Jesus appears to the disciples’ by William Hole

Sermon for Palm Sunday

Mark 11.1-11, Philippians 2.5-11, Psalm 31.9-16, Mark 15.1-39 (Year B, 2021)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The more we read and study the Bible, the more we discover the multiple layers and depths of God’s work in the world.  We begin to see how Jesus regularly subverted the religious norms.  He was confident in challenging the religious authorities and undermining the political establishment.  He overturned the tables, both figuratively and, in the case of the moneychangers in the Temple, literally.

And yet, as we have seen in Matthew’s Gospel over and over again, His actions, by reflecting back on the Hebrew Bible, fulfil the Law and the Prophets.  Jesus is the fulfilment of all that God promised throughout the ages, but probably not in the way people were expecting.

Palm Sunday is a perfect example of this, so let’s unpack the scripture.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem the atmosphere must have been intense.  The people were getting ready to celebrate Passover, the feast when the Jews remember the day they escaped slavery in Egypt through God’s power.  The paschal lambs were slaughtered and their blood spread on the lintels to give a sign that to the Angel of Death that they were not to be touched.  Jerusalem was held under a new oppressive regime, the Romans; and Jesus was already being hailed as the saviour, the Messiah, who would free them.  If Jesus was the Messiah, he was fulfilling the prophets, but definitely not in the way that was expected.  He was not a political rebel leader or warrior.  His leadership was subversive.

His arrival is both fulfilling and subversive.  A king would be expected to ride a great war-horse, powerful and imposing.  Jesus used a donkey.  In Zechariah 9, we read, “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.  He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem; and the battle-bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea.” (Zech 9.9-12)

Jesus knew exactly what He was doing when he rode in on a donkey.  He claimed his own understanding of being the Messiah.  Maybe this it what turned the crowds against Him.  They were shouting ‘Hosanna’, meaning ‘Save now!’  Such high hopes were being dashed, the people even embarrassed, as they realised Jesus was not going to raise arms against the Romans.

Instead Jesus subverts their understanding of the Messiah because as the true Messiah he was able to see the even bigger picture, the one where we are all held under the bondage of sin and death.  That passage from the prophet Zechariah goes on to say, “As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.”  Jesus fulfils the Laws of Passover, and the Prophets’ words regarding the Messiah, but not in a small-scale, time-limited freeing of a nation from an oppressor, but in a timeless, eternal breaking of the victory of death.

We can still shout ‘hosanna’, ‘save me’, but we shout it with confidence, not desperation; for salvation has already come.  The passage from Philippians, and the Passion reading, go on to lay out how this salvation took place: God emptied out for us, humbled and obedient even to the point of death on a cross.  

Even now it can be hard for us to understand this topsy-turvy world of Jesus.  Look at today: the triumphant victory of Palm Sunday which looks like a defeat, but actually really is the true victory.  If we try and squish Jesus into what we think God should have done or do for us now, we will always struggle and perhaps feel let down, even embarrassed.  If instead we let the scriptures and the Holy Spirit through our prayers reveal Jesus to us, we will discover someone far greater than any king or leader we can imagine.  

Jesus fulfilled the promises and prophecies made in the Bible, often in unexpected, surprising, subversive ways.  This Holy Week I invite you to walk with Christ and discover just how He turned the whole world upside down.

Amen.

(Artwork: ‘The Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem’ by James Tissot)

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

Hebrews 5.5-10, Psalm 119.9-16 & John 12.20-33 (Yr B, 2021)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Today marks the start of Passiontide, the last two weeks of Lent when we become much more focused on the events that led up to Jesus’ death and resurrection.

In John’s Gospel we have Jesus in Jerusalem, most likely in the inner courts of the Temple, since the Greeks could not access him directly.  They would have been God-believers, Gentiles who tried to live as close to the Jewish law as possible, but not Jews.  So they ask one of the disciples to ‘see him’.

Faced with this request Jesus doesn’t respond directly but instead says ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’

Why?  Why now?  And what does he mean?

It cannot simply be about the Gentile nature of this group, being symbolic of the whole world coming to learn about and from Jesus.  After all the Magi represent the whole world and they came to Jesus when was a baby.  Jesus also had interactions throughout his ministry with Gentiles – think of the Roman centurion, the Samaritan woman by the well, the Syro-Phoenician woman and the Gerasene demoniac.  So it would be wrong to suggest that the arrival of the Greeks was something entirely new.

But it does appear to be a pivot point.

At the wedding of Cana, Jesus says to his mother in response to the lack of wine ‘What concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’   Later, in John chapter 7, he has a dispute with his brothers and repeats this statement: ‘My time has not yet come.’

But now the hour has come.  And Jesus immediately goes on to speak about a grain of wheat falling to the ground and dying in order to bear fruit.  When he speaks about his hour, and about glory, this is what he is pointing to, and we can see a motif of ascending and descending.  The context of being lifted up (his body on the cross), and the grain of wheat falling to the ground is his body being removed from the cross, placed in the tomb, and descending to Sheol for the Harrowing of Hell on Holy Saturday.

How does this glorify God?  Well, glory, of course, means to honour and exalt, but it also means to reveal.  In the Old Testament the equivalent word in Hebrew kavod is used where God is revealed, such as the resting of the glory of YHMH over the tabernacle, as mentioned in Exodus.

John is trying to remind us that this is not just any man who is about to die.  Jesus is God.  The Greeks are asking to see the Word made flesh.  

And when Jesus is lifted up on the cross we are all shown ‘the revelation of the divine in the human story’ (Maloney).

It is in his death and resurrection, that grain of wheat dying and bearing much fruit, that we are shown Jesus’ self-gift for the life of the world, and because Jesus is the Word of God, if you want to know who the true God is, look long and hard at Jesus.  God is honoured because we are shown what God will do to redeem the world broken by our sin and disobedience.

Glory is found in Christ’s death, not because of the humiliation of the scourging and mocking and crucifixion, but because what the world sees as a defeat is really a triumph.

If we reflect on this passage over the next two weeks of Passiontide, we will be powerfully reminded throughout of exactly who paid this price, and what was bought.  

It may well make the shame and grief we feel on Good Friday more painful, but it also makes the glory more glorious, and the joy of Easter Day more joyful.  

Our God loves us this much. 

Let us, like the Greeks, yearn to see Jesus, and this Passiontide may you, with all the world, be drawn to him.  His Passion is for you.  

Amen.

(Artwork:’The Gentiles ask to see Jesus’ by James Tissot)

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

Numbers 21.4-9, Psalm 107.1-9  & John 3.14-21

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Today’s two passages from scripture show just how interlinked the Old and the New Testaments are.  It underlines that whilst God was doing something new in Christ, He wasn’t doesn’t something completely different.  The whole story of creation is one of God reaching out to His children in love, in redemption.  In fact, you might say that today’s passages are Lent in a nutshell.

In Numbers we hear during their wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites grumbled against Moses – and not just a little bit, but a lot.  Life on their travels was proving hard, grinding the people down.  Immediately prior to this event some of the Israelites had been taken captive by the king of Arad, and after making a vow to God, they had defeated the king and the Canaanites at Hormah.  Their response was not to fulfil their vow but instead to moan about the lack of water and the awful food.  

And in the words of a well-known advert, this was not just any food, this was God-given food.  In the chapter before, the Lord had answered their complaints by sending water at Meribah, when Moses struck the rock with this staff.  The food was the quails and manna sent from heaven.  They weren’t having to till the ground.  God was giving them what they needed, and without cost to themselves.  

To complain about the food was to question the grace of God.

As a punishment for their ingratitude and lack of faith, poisonous snakes entered the camp, and killed anyone they bit.  However, as well as the punishment, God also gave to the Israelites the cure.  It would require faith and faithfulness, the things which their complaint showed they were lacking – Moses was to make a replica serpent out of bronze, put it on the top of a pole, and then anyone who had bitten was to look at it, and they would be healed.  

The bronze serpent, known as the Nehushtan, was later stored in the Tabernacle as a sacred object, until King Hezekiah discovered that the people were worshipping it, and broke it into pieces (2 Kings 18.4)  So even then there was a confusion about what or rather who was doing the saving.

In the Gospel of John, the author makes a very clear link.  Moses put the serpent on a pole and lifted it up so people could see it.  Jesus, the Son of Man, would be lifted up on the cross, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.  

John is making the point that humankind as a whole has been smitten with a deadly disease – that disease we call sin, the thing that makes us turn from God, and our soul withers inside.  The only cure is to look at Jesus dying on the cross, and find life through believing in him.

I know the past year has been difficult, however the Lenten call to repentance is a serious part of the Christian life.  In shedding what holds us back, we are more able to follow Christ, and we are more prepared for challenges.  I suggest that take time this week to each ask ourselves questions based on the reading from Numbers:
What gifts from God have I received? (What is the manna in my life?)
How have I responded to God? (Did I thank God for these gifts, or complain that they weren’t good enough?)
And most importantly, what do I need most in my life?  (Specifically am I acknowledging my need for God’s salvation?)  

Today’s gospel gives us a very clear indication of what God’s love looks like.  ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’.   Just like the Israelites there is nothing for us to do but have faith.  As Passiontide approaches let us prepare our hearts to look upon Jesus on the Cross, knowing that in Him is our future.

We look – and live.  

Amen. 

(Artwork: ‘The Brazen Serpent’ from the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo)

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent

(Exodus 20.1-17, 15-16, Psalm 19.7-14  & John 2.13-22 – Year B)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The cleansing of the Temple is an extraordinary event.  Jesus is often portrayed as calm, compassionate, in control; even, in the words of one hymn by Charles Wesley, ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.’  

We really don’t like the idea of an angry Jesus.  It plays into our fears of a God of unloving wrath, often the accusation thrown at the Old Testament.  But in this event we have written down a very different Jesus.  His is not anger that is out of control, but it is white-hot.  And if we are to take Christ’s divinity seriously, we are challenged by what this reveals about the nature of God.

Christ’s actions in this event, I’m sorry to say, have been used in history to justify violence by Christians to others, so it is important that we try to understand exactly what Jesus was doing here.

The cleansing of the Temple is mentioned in all four Gospels, and so clearly had a very big impact on those who witnessed it.  Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Passover, a festival which was always accompanied by heightened tensions between the Roman occupiers and the Jewish people, who were, remember, celebrating a festival of liberation from slavery and oppression.  Thousands of pilgrims crowded into the city walls, so imagine the crowds, bumping into one another, frustrations, petty and political, all bubbling under the surface.

In the Temple Jesus finds people going about their daily life.  There were sellers of animals for sacrifice, and money changers swapping Roman currency for Tyrian shekels, used to pay the Temple tax.  These activities were necessary for the Temple to go about its business.  Was Jesus angry that these activities had become the focus of the Temple, rather than prayer?  Or was he angry at the systemic injustice which meant that people were forced to use these specific animals and coins, at a cost, rather than simply being able to bring their gifts and hearts to God?  Was it the emphasis on money, always one of the most dangerous idols, that incensed him.   God is very clear on matters of righteousness – just read the Ten Commandments, written on stone.

Either way, what we see here is Jesus acting as a prophet, challenging the status quo.  John is the only Gospel author who adds the detail of the whip of cords which are used to drive out the animals (and note, he does not strike the people – ‘he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle’ is critical here, refuting anyone that would use this as justification of violence against people).

Jesus is challenged in return: ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’  The passage immediately before this in John’s Gospel is the wedding at Cana, where we see the first of the signs of Jesus’ identity, the turning of water into wine.  Signs give authority.

And so Jesus foretells the sign that will be the ultimate indication of his authority: his death and resurrection.  To those who do not understand, this sounds like foolishness, but to Christians it is the power of God.  

The Synoptic Gospels have this episode as the pivot point after which those in authority seriously begin to seek his death.  There is a sense of a growing confrontation, set within that festival of liberation, Passover, between the reign of God and the entrenched systems of religious and political power and oppression.

For us today, understanding why this happened helps us to be more Christ-like.  In the face of idolatry, injustice and abuse God is full of righteous anger, and so we too have a prophetic calling.  Not because we pick up whips or encourage violence, but because part of the Christian calling is knowing when to confront entrenched injustice and challenge the status quo.  Such love is not quiet and gentle; it is prophetic and full of fire. 

As Edmund Burke once said “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”  Let us be the sign to the world that God’s reign has drawn near and injustice will not hold sway.  Amen. 

(Artwork: ‘The Purification of the Temple’ by El Greco)

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent

Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22.23-31 & Mark 8.31-38

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

There is an obvious Lenten theme in today’s Gospel, building on last week’s passage which focused on Jesus moving from his Baptism into the wilderness where he was tempted. So too in Mark chapter 8, Jesus is given a challenge to his path. The famous phrase ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ is one that we might all have used at some point when being faced with a temptation, a chocolate cake when on a fast, that sort of thing. But what is going on at a more theological level in this passage?

Well, I’m slightly surprisingly going to talk about names. Names are terribly important. They give us our identity. If we want to call someone, we do so by their name. Shouting ‘oi!’ at someone across a room is still considered rude, and rightly so! We don’t have a lot of say in the name we are given at birth – though there’s no doubt that a great deal of time and thought goes into choosing the name for a new baby.

However, in the Bible there are a number of occasions when someone is given a new name. Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai – Sarah. Saul becomes Paul, Simon – Peter. It’s rather like when someone takes a confirmation name, or a new Pope is announced. The new name they take tells us something very important about them, for it often points to what their identity is.

And that is exactly what we hear in today’s Old Testament reading. Abram is given a new name, Abraham. It’s a tiny change to his name, but it symbolizes a huge change to the life of Abram. Abram responded to God with love and obedience, and God seeing this faithfulness, makes a covenant, an agreement, with him. In return for that love which Abram shows in his worship and his obedience to God’s commands, such as the act of circumcision, God promises to give Abram many children, something which he and his wife Sarai had been unable to have so far in their lives. So Abram, which means ‘exalted father’ becomes Abraham, which means ‘father of multitudes’.

Likewise Sarai, which means ‘argumentative’ is also given a new name, Sarah, which means ‘princess’. These two people by their obedience and faithfulness are to become part of that royal priesthood that worships God, and they will be the start of the Jewish people, held as special and set apart by this covenant with God.

And what of Peter, the Rock. Well, he’s not being very rock like in the Gospel passage. So when he tries to tell Jesus not to talk of rejection and dying and rising again, Jesus doesn’t say, ‘Stop it Peter’ or even Simon. No, he says, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ (Mk 8.33)

Satan is a figure in the Hebrew Bible who is sent by God to oppose or obstruct someone (that’s what it means literally, ‘Opposer’), as we see in the Book of Job. In Christianity and modern understanding, Satan seems to have fallen completely from God, a symbol of utter evil. However think of the term ‘the Devil’s Advocate’ – this is someone who intentionally chooses to take an opposing or adversarial position. In this passage Jesus’ use of the word ‘Satan’ seems to be in the traditional Jewish way. He names Peter’s words as opposing the will of God, of tempting Jesus to disobey God, to take a different path from the one Jesus knows he is to take.

And, as is so often the case, we are presented across the two readings with a choice. Life or death. Blessings or curses. To obey or to oppose the will of God.

This is also the choice for us and in Lent we have the opportunity to think more intentionally about our choices. By reflecting on the paths chosen by those in the Bible, we can apply the same understanding to the paths that lay before us. One is narrow but leads to eternal life. The others are wide and tempting, and although they may seem to lead to good things, ultimately if they are not aligned with God’s will, they are dead ends. The choice is yours.

Amen.

(Artwork: ‘Get Thee Behind Me, Satan’ by James Tissot)

Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent

Genesis 9.8-17, Psalm 25.1-9  & Mark 1.9-15  (Year B)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

We have two very different readings today.  The Gospel reading from Mark’s records the baptism of Jesus followed by his temptation in the wilderness, which, of course,  provides the pattern for the forty days of Lent. 

Then there is the Genesis reading – the story of God’s covenant with Noah after the flood and the sign of that agreement, the rainbow.  But the rainbow seems somehow out of place in this season of Lent – a season traditionally stark and austere. Look around – there are no flowers in church.  The colours are dark and sombre, with purple on the altar.  Lent began on Ash Wednesday with its reminder of our sinfulness and mortality and of our need to repent.

And yet, there in the first reading on the first Sunday in Lent, we find the bright colours of the rainbow, a symbol of hope and promise.  

The rainbow reminds us that our spirituality cannot be disconnected from the world around us. It cannot be the kind that is so heavenly minded that it is of no earthly good. God’s covenant with Noah was one that was centred on the earth. It was a promise that God made that never again would He destroy the earth with a flood. And did you notice that it was made not only with humans, but also with the animals and, in fact, with the earth itself.  I’ll read that bit again:

“This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” (Gen 9.12-13)

God is making an agreement with the badgers and the foxes, the pheasants and the ducks, the frogs and butterflies, the polar bears and the pandas.  God makes a solemn promise that never again would He send such thorough destruction upon the earth.

Whatever Lent or our Christian faith may mean to us, it must be rooted in the world in which we live. We live an incarnational faith.  The Son of God came and dwelt among us, the Incarnation.  The very stuff of life, matter, matters.

So our faith must be concerned with others, with other people and with other living creatures and with the earth in which we live.  We are called to be stewards of this beautiful planet.  How are we doing with that, do you think? 

Back to the rainbow – did you know that the rainbow in other ancient cultures was seen as an ominous sign? It represented to them a bow, a weapon, used by the gods.  Even in Hebrew the word for the war bow and the rainbow is the same word, ‘Qeshet’. But the Hebrews saw the rainbow as a weapon that had been disarmed. It points harmlessly upward. The rainbow, for them, was a sign of hope and promise, a symbol of peace.

As Christians we understand how a negative symbol can become positive. The symbol of the Christian faith is a cross. A cruel instrument designed for nothing but the infliction of pain.  A means of capital punishment, though not one made for causing death swiftly, but rather for prolonging death. Yet it has become the sign and symbol of the Christian faith, because it speaks to us of new life, forgiveness, and a new creation. 

So today, at the start of these 40 days of Lent as we practice the disciplines which root us in God and also care for the world, that of prayer, fasting and alms-giving, I offer you the symbol of the rainbow.  If you would like to delve deeper into the Rainbow and its theological significance, then do join me on Saturday for our first Zoom Lent discussion.  

The rainbow – colourful, bright, a sign of hope and promise, of a new beginning with a closer relationship with God, and a symbol that takes our spirituality and our prayer life and roots it firmly in the world in which we live, a world full of people and other creatures. 

The rainbow – a perfect symbol for Lent.         Amen.

(Artwork: ‘Noah’s Thank Offering’ by Joseph Anton Koch)

Sermon for The Next Sunday before Lent

2 Corinthians 4.3-6, Psalm 50.1-6 & Mark 9.2-9

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Veils, for being a simple piece of cloth, have a surprisingly complicated history.  They are often used symbolically, representing modesty, purity, devoutness and being set aside for a specific purpose.  They can be used practically, to hide the face from the sun or to provide a shield from prying eyes, for someone in mourning, for example.  We veil the statues in church doing Passiontide, and remember how the curtain in the Temple was torn in two at the moment of Christ’s death.  Veils can be used for good and for mischief.  Today we find ourselves in a time of a new veil, the Covid mask, which opens for us a new understanding to the readings we’ve just heard.

Let’s begin with the Gospel reading, Mark’s account of the Transfiguration.  Jesus ascended up the mountain to pray, and something spectacular happened.   He was transfigured, illumined in some way. His clothes became dazzling white, but it must have been something more than just clothes.  Jesus himself became dazzling, as his divinity was shining out.   The appearance of Moses and Elijah alongside him point to a further revelation of Jesus as the fulfilment of both the Law and Prophets. 

This is a timeless moment when the glory of God shines around.  When Peter tried to move from awed observer to participant with his offer of a shelter, a cloud came down like a veil descending over the scene.  God spoke but when they were finally able to look around once more, the other figures had gone and they were alone again.

This echoes the Old Testament when Moses ascended into a dark cloud in order to speak face to face with God. When he returned to the Israelites his face shone with such reflected glory that the Israelites could not bear to look at him.  So Moses veiled his face.

In our other reading St Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians implies that because of the Israelites misunderstanding and because of their behaviour and unfaithfulness, not only was Moses’ face veiled, but so was the Law.  It became only half-known, partly understood but not fully.

Paul goes on to say that in the early church, the veil is still in place, not because Moses or Christ didn’t do their jobs properly, but because the people still didn’t understand what the Old Testament was pointing to, what it was revealing to them.  After Christ’s death and Resurrection the early church was busy at work sharing the Good News, but not everyone wanted to listen.  Paul explained that someone needs to turn to God, then they will be able to see that hidden light, because everything is revealed in Christ.  Christ is like the groom who lifts the veil from the face of his bride, the Church, and we can all see clearly, face to face.

We understand better now what a veil, or mask, means to communication.  I can’t see clearly if the person talking to me is smiling or grimacing.  I see only part of their faces and have to work out as much as possible from their eyes.  I’ve spoken to plenty of people who can’t hear as well when people are wearing masks, as everything is slightly muffled.  From a hygiene point of view we know exactly why we are wearing them, but they have effects beyond preventing the spread of Covid.  This is a good metaphor to help understand that when the Gospel is veiled or masked it too is prevented from speaking clearly and shining forth with all its glory.

So we must be like Paul, ready to remove the veil, and step out of the cloud to look for and share the truth boldly.  When we turn to the Lord, the true and full meaning of the Bible becomes available.  And it is at that point that, through the power of God, we will be transformed, just as Moses was, just as Paul was, from glory into glory.  It means that we will see where God has been at work, in ourselves and when we look at each other.  We might not have shining faces that dazzle, but glory is something you recognize by faith.

So firstly, let’s try to get rid of that veil over our hearts and minds. And then, let’s be bold.  Let’s use clear language, stand face to face, and look for Christ, in the words we read, the prayers we make, and the life we lead.  He is there, waiting for us.  Amen.

(Artwork: ‘The Transfiguration’ by Alexandr Ivanov)

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Epiphany

Revelation 19.6-10, Psalm 128 & John 2.1-11 (Year B, 2021)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Last week I talked a little bit about invitation, relationship and mystery, and how we don’t instantly get to know Jesus.  We grow in our relationship with Jesus, but there is always more to come. It is our human desire to have all the answers immediately that makes living with the inherent mystery of God so difficult.

A prime example of this is when the Gospels record the miracles of Jesus.  

For example, you may have heard the Feeding of the Five Thousand described as a miracle of generosity, that by sharing the bread and fish, Jesus inspired those around him to share the food they had brought with them.  It’s okay as a metaphor, but I can’t really imagine anyone spending their lives following a man just because he could get people to stop hoarding their food, or perhaps more currently panic buying.

Where is the glory of God in that?   

Likewise any attempt to explain away the turning of water into wine risks suggesting that Jesus was just a second rate conjurer doing a cheap trick, when in fact this was a sign of Jesus’ divine nature, his ability to have control over the very stuff of life.  It is a miracle.

So instead I encourage you to listen for the echoes of how God acts. Whilst there is much of God that is a mystery, God also chooses to reveal himself to us, most perfectly in the life, death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.

What are we looking for in that incident at the wedding in Cana?  

Need.  Response.  Generosity.

At the wedding feast, the need is almost unknown.  Only the servants, Mary and Jesus seem to be aware of what is happening.  But it’s a very real need.  A common understanding of the situation is that for a wedding party to run out of drink, for the hospitality to run dry, this would have been a cause of disgrace.   And although Jesus seems to initially hold back, ‘My hour has not yet come’ he said, he did respond, and in such an extraordinary way.  The wine is not just good enough; it’s sweet and delicious.  And there is soooooo much of it!  

The prophet Isaiah gave us a vision of the heavenly banquet which is prepared for us:

“The Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.”  (Isa 25.6)

It’s such a wonderful prophecy.  We are made to yearn for it, to crave an invitation to this feast.  (Keep in mind – invitation, relationship and mystery)

And this is the type of banquet that Jesus creates.  Manna in abundance.  Baskets full to capacity.  Wine overflowing.

And of course, we are invited.  Not only that, but we’re invited to a foretaste of it, here where we gather at the Lord’s Table, to his meal, of broken bread and wine outpoured.

What happens here isn’t a cheap trick, either.  

Instead we find that the Holy Spirit comes in to make real what Jesus said at that Last Supper two thousand years ago.  

Grace turns ordinary bread and wine into extraordinary true food and true drink, for it is through Jesus we are truly nourished.  

That’s why the words of Institution are so important, because we must never forget that we are doing what Jesus commanded us to.  He is the sign to our redemption.

There we see this wonderful mystery coming together – Jesus’ life and his sacrifice, bread and wine, body and blood, earthly meal and heavenly feast.

And what a joyful thing that is, because it promises eternal life as we are united with Christ.  We become one with him.  That’s why a wedding is the perfect place for Christ’s first sign, for as a wedding couple become one flesh, so too are Christ and his Church united as one. 

That is what John the Divine is speaking of in the Book of Revelation: 

“Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.”  Amen

(Artwork: mosaic of the Wedding at Cana, artist unknown)

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