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I THIRST

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

(Psalm 23, John 10.1-10)

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

Our readings today began with the much loved Psalm 23. ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ has been recited and sung for thousands of years. There is something deeply reassuring and comforting about these well known words from the psalm.

What are your favourite lines?

The thought of lying down in green pasture, beside still waters?

Or of sitting down at the table with God, and receiving the overflowing cup?

I felt particularly moved, as we sit at home and unable to meet in our churches, by the psalmist’s promise to dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. How I yearn to return to our sacred spaces, and how I yearn for that place in the eternal presence of God.

There are also words here that speak into our very situation – “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil – for you are with me.”

How wonderful to remember that. God is with us. Even when it is dark and perilous, God walks besides us, our Emmanuel.

And then today’s passage from the Gospel of St John is also packed full of imagery and metaphor, which Jesus uses to tell us about God, about his own nature, and it builds upon that precious psalm.

Jesus places himself into the heart of the psalm by depicting himself as the shepherd in charge of the sheep.  We are told that as one of Christ’s flock, we lack nothing if we follow our Shepherd. Often we pray to keep our eyes set on Jesus, but in this passage we are called to listen for Christ’s voice and respond to it.

And we are to know the difference between Jesus and strangers. There is an intimacy of relationship here. To know someone’s voice, and to be known by them, is a relationship which takes time. Trust and confidence is built up.

He extends the metaphor with one of the great “I am” sayings: “I am the door of the sheepfold” (John 10.7-9).

The seven “I am” sayings from John’s Gospel are not stand alone sayings, but are intertwined and build upon each other. They all have in common a sense of revealing the links to the Hebrew Scriptures, both the name of God at the burning bush (“I AM who I AM” – Exodus 3.14), but also as a reflection of key ideals of Israel or the promised Messiah.

They lead to an understanding of Jesus as strongly and inherently connected with the divine; Jesus can take upon God’s name because he is the very expression of God himself.
Depicting himself as the Door, this saying is not only about Jesus, but also about those who oppose him. It has resonance with the saying in John 14.6 about being the ‘way’; only through belief in Jesus does safety or salvation lie.

In the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy (2015-2016) Bishop Martin led a pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi. The great Holy Doors of the major basilicas in Rome, normally sealed by mortar and cement from the inside so that they cannot be opened, were ceremoniously opened for the pilgrims to enter through them.

On more than one occasion a sign was placed by these huge and extraordinary doors that read simply “I AM the door”. We entered not as tourists just entering another beautiful church, but as members of Christ’s flock, through Christ, and into the sacred space dedicated to God.

Although our reading today did not continue any further, in the very next line Jesus went on to say “I am the good shepherd” (John 10.11-14). Jesus changed his metaphor slightly from gate to shepherd.

Part of this has historical context, since shepherds sheltering their sheep in caves over night would have laid themselves down to prevent the sheep from escaping or predators from entering the cave. Jesus is therefore both gate and shepherd at the same time.

But it isn’t about keeping everyone in a sheep-based lockdown. Notice how the flock are to go in and out and find pasture. Yes, there is safety in Jesus, but it is not a cotton-wool, protective bubble. Retreat and mission, moving and breathing in and out through Christ.

These are powerful images of Jesus, and today I invite you to spend a little time reflecting on them and how Jesus speaks to you through them.

How do you see yourself? Sheep in his flock, or pilgrim passing through his door?

How do you relate to Jesus? How do you listen for his voice?

Perhaps you are a seeker, tentatively thinking about knocking upon that door. Today consider asking Jesus to let you in and receive life from him.

Jesus reassures us that if we follow him, and accept all that he wants to give us, we will receive life in abundance. Our cup shall be full.

Amen.

 

 

(Photo taken in Rome, 2016 during the Diocesan pilgrimage for the Year of Mercy)

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter

Psalm 1161.7, Luke 24.13-35

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

The events which took place on the road to Emmaus are part of a series of powerful, impactful Resurrection reports.  It was a transformative encounter, one of hope and inspiration.  The climatic words of the passage, that Jesus “had been recognised by them at the breaking of the bread”, have shaped Christian theology surrounding the Eucharist and our understanding of Christ’s presence in the bread and wine, his Body and Blood.

However, before we jump to the joyful conclusion, the part where the disciples came rushing back to Jerusalem to tell their friends that they had seen the risen Lord, let us loiter awhile with the two disciples at the beginning of the passage.

For truthfully, we do not know when we will be able to rush back to our church communities and break bread together.  There is much to be said about the joy of communion and Holy Communion.  We will have time to reflect on the nature of church community and the Eucharist and what it has meant to us to be without it for months.

Right now there is an opportunity to walk with the disciples on the road.  And in doing so we may find the comfort of realising that we are not alone.

As the disciples walked away from Jerusalem, they were despondent.  They had just witnessed their teacher, their great hope, be arrested, tried and executed.  The disciples have scattered, some behind locked doors, others abandoning the city completely.  They may have been heading to their original home, or to a place of safety.  They did so in a state of bewilderment and mourning.

We can empathise with this – their world, within 48 hours, had been turned upside down.  They were coping with feelings of fear, even terror, as well as grief.  The whole thing left them feeling disorientated.

These are similar emotions to those who now find themselves dealing with the death of a loved one, or someone on being admitted to hospital.  In a handbook for hospital chaplains, Mark Cobb wrote, “people are challenged by change over which they may have little control but that may diminish or threaten the person’s sense of identity, purpose, significance and relatedness to others.”

During a placement I undertook at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge, I witnessed that disorientation was something many people experienced.  Confusion, anxiety, loss of autonomy, the strange silence of the wards within an almost constant busyness, and the difficulties of communication (currently  made even more tricky with faces covered by masks and a lack of visiting by friends and family) – all these factors make the experience a complex one to navigate.

Over a period of time a person may become accustomed to the new environment, even find a new place for themselves within it.  People are adaptable.  It helps us cope by finding new routines and roles. 

But it takes time.

It’s a journey.

If we return to the story of Emmaus, Jesus, after his resurrection, walked with his disciples in the ‘wrong’ direction.  

Disorientated, the disciples were heading away from Jerusalem; except that is where the next events for the whole community were going to take place.  The disciples weren’t to know this.  Leaving town probably seemed a very sensible thing to do; that was what they needed to do at that point in time.  

And so when Jesus appeared he didn’t immediately tell them who he was, or that they should return to Jerusalem.  Instead, he walked with them and he listened to their conversation.

There is no rush with Jesus.  First of all Jesus attended to the disciples’ experience of what happened in Jerusalem by listening to their story. He allowed the disciples to unburden themselves, asking questions which gave them the opportunity to be honest about their fears and worries.

Later he can reveal the truth to them; he can transform the situation because he is the Christ. True, he rebuked them, but at the same time he did not judge them for their lack of understanding. Having listened, he quietly moved into teaching and leading.  

Jesus is not intrusive. When they get near their destination, he walked on as if he was going to leave them and only stayed when they asked him to join them for dinner.  

It’s another sign that God is there, waiting for us to invite Him in, but not forcing the door open.  Being a Christian means being an active participant.

And finally, Jesus did not linger but left at the right moment, when the disciples recognized his transforming presence.  

Journeys change us. That is part of the power of a pilgrimage – we’re not the same person at the end as we were at the beginning.

It is the same for us in lockdown.  We will come through this, but we will be changed.  We may think about things a little differently, our habits may change, either because we have no choice or because after reflection we choose to.

There is no quick route out.  We will have to walk the path of disorientation until we get used to it, or until the route out becomes clear.  So we journey, apart but together.

The disciples on the road to Emmaus kept talking to each other, and, even without knowing it, kept talking to God.  Doing so can really help us to unpack what is happening, and can do our mental health the world of good.  

I make another suggestion around asking questions and talking through events, for example, which is to write a journal, or through painting/photographing your lockdown journey.  And keep reviewing what you have chronicled as it will help make sense of what you experiencing and feeling, and how it changes over time.

The disciples did not realise that Jesus was with them until the breaking of the bread.  It was only after that they were able to look back and see His presence in the whole journey, how only later could they say, “Did we not feel our hearts on fire as he talked with us on the road?”

Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”  And with that  thought in mind, I leave you with this famous poem on a journey walked with Jesus:

Footprints in the Sand by Anon

One night a man had a dream. He dreamed
he was walking along the beach with the LORD.

Across the sky flashed scenes from his life.
For each scene he noticed two sets of
footprints in the sand: one belonging
to him, and the other to the LORD.

When the last scene of his life flashed before him,
he looked back at the footprints in the sand.

He noticed that many times along the path of
his life there was only one set of footprints.

He also noticed that it happened at the very
lowest and saddest times in his life.

This really bothered him and he
questioned the LORD about it:

“LORD, you said that once I decided to follow you,
you’d walk with me all the way.
But I have noticed that during the most
troublesome times in my life,
there is only one set of footprints.
I don’t understand why when
I needed you most you would leave me.”

The LORD replied:

“My son, my precious child,
I love you and I would never leave you.
During your times of trial and suffering,
when you see only one set of footprints,
it was then that I carried you.”

 

Thanks be to God.

 

 

(Artwork: ‘Christ’s Appearance to Two Disciples Journeying to Emmaus’ by John Linnell)

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter

(Acts 2.14a, 22-32, Psalm 16, John 20.19-end)

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

Reading the Bible through the lens of lockdown keeps bringing to light different aspects of the daily readings.  Today the focus is often on Doubting Thomas, but when I read through the Gospel, the words which leapt from the page were these: “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.”

This took place after Mary had met Jesus by the empty tomb in the garden, and after she had gone to the disciples and told them what she had seen and what Jesus had told her.  

Perhaps the disciples were hopeful, or perhaps they were as dismissive as Thomas would later be when they themselves had seen the risen Lord.

Either way, that evening they gathered in a private house. 

And they locked the doors.

We are learning every day about barriers.  They are a crucial part in protecting ourselves and others from the spread of Covid-19.  

Barriers can be physical.  We are physically separating ourselves from each other, social distancing when out and about, but also effectually locking ourselves away.  For those working in hospitals and care homes, the barriers are thinner – masks, gowns, gloves – but their importance and necessity has become increasingly well established.

But barriers can also be psychological.  They can be  the mental framework we put in place in order to cope with the changes we are faced with.  For example, there has been a lot of suggestion that giving yourself a daily break from social media or coronavirus-focused news can help mental health.

These barriers are protective and proactively defensive. 

The disciples must have been in a state of complete terror.  It wasn’t Mary’s words that were at the forefront of their minds – it was the shouts of the crowd, ‘Crucify him’, and the sound of the hammer on nails.  Were they the next to be arrested?    And so they reacted by closing the doors to hide themselves from the expected attack. 

Protective, defensive.

However, barriers can have a negative impact.  They can feed into our fears; they can cut us off from people when we need help.  The evangelist John wrote in a deeply imaginative and metaphorical way (for example, reflect on his use of the motif of ‘night’ in his gospel), and there is something to be said for imagining that he is also speaking about the condition of the disciples at this point.  They were locked in, closed up.  Fear had taken over.

What they were about to learn is important for us too.  

It didn’t matter that they had closed the doors.  Jesus came and stood among them, and gave them a greeting of grace and peace. 

Remember that at Christ’s arrest most of these same disciples had run away.  Peter had denied him.  Only John is recorded as having stayed at the cross.  Others had later left town.  They had scattered, only slowly returning to gather together in fear and behind locked doors.

And then Jesus is there amongst them!

What does he say?  Does he take them to task for their failings, their lack of loyalty?

No.  He says, “Peace be with you.”  

And then he gives them a commission, and breathes on them, giving them the Holy Spirit.  

There is a beautiful link here to Ezekiel’s prophecy of the valley of dry bones, when God says, “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” (Ezekiel 37.9)

The disciples are given new life, effectively recreated.   Jesus’s healing miracles often have multiple and layered meanings – forgiveness of sin, being physically made whole, and restored to community.  So it was with the disciples – they were given Jesus’ peace, freed from terror and guilt, and given new life.  In order to be commissioned and sent out, they had to move from being locked in. 

And in being sent, the disciples, and indeed the Church, are invited into Jesus himself.  He was sent by the Father.  He and the Father send the Spirit.  And the Son sends the disciples out into the world, equipped by the Spirit.  

We are reminded that the life of a Christian is a missionary one.  We are all sent out to share the good news of Jesus Christ.  

It’s where one of the names for our main Sunday service, the Mass, comes from, in the final words ‘Ite, missa est’.  Benedict XVI in ‘Sacramentum caritatis’ wrote “In antiquity, missa simply meant ‘dismissal’. In Christian usage, however, it gradually took on a deeper meaning. The word ‘dismissal’ has come to imply a ‘mission’. These few words succinctly express the missionary nature of the Church”.

In the past, that ‘sending’ has meant actively going out into the world and telling people about Jesus – in church, through mission projects, our relationships with schools and charities, and so on.  It has meant modelling a Christ-like life, with prayer and good works.

Just because we are in lockdown, it doesn’t mean we are closed down.  This would be a good week to pray for Jesus to come amongst us, wherever we are, and bring us his message of peace and grace.  

Where we are feeling fearful, let us ask for that breathe to give us new life – not because our fears aren’t important, real or truthful; but because we don’t want to be spiritually or mentally paralysed by them.

Jesus can come to us, wherever we are, and however rubbish we are feeling.  He can walk through locked doors, along quarantine wards, and into isolated care homes.  

And as he does, he doesn’t bring condemnation or a telling off.  He brings peace, and for those who want to listen, a commission to tell others of that peace.

All the disciples doubted at the beginning, not just Thomas.  Doubt and fear is a natural response.  But it doesn’t have to be the lasting one.  

Yes, this is a strange Easter – but Easter doesn’t only come when the sun is shining.  Easter comes because we need it, and because God, in His infinite wisdom, gifts it to us.  And we can be just as transformed by it as ever.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Amen.

 

 

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

Sermon for Easter Day

(Acts 10.34-43, John 20.1-18)

When you were a child, did you have a soft toy, or a doll, or a blanket, something that you always wanted to keep by your side?  As children, in a big world, having something to cling to can make us feel safe and in control.  

Of course, there is the risk that the toy or blanket can be misplaced.  Perhaps you remember that feeling.  To a child it can be devastating to lose something so precious, and if it is found again, the relief is obvious to anyone watching.  They hold on with all their might.

As adults we might think we’re more rational, but most people still have something similar, except instead of a toy  it may look different.  A loved one, a pet, something which connects the person to God in an intimate way.  If lost, there is panic and fear; when found, deep relief and comfort.

That feeling, that emotion, gives us a real insight to St Mary Magdalene and the events of Easter Day.  Following Mary’s healing by Jesus, she became a devout follower, and was there at the Crucifixion and the burial.  It is clear that the death of Jesus left an enormous hole inside of Mary.  She was in genuine pain, and so on the day after the Jewish Sabbath she went to the tomb to do what she could for her dead teacher.  

Imagine her shock, the additional pain she must have felt when she discovered that the tomb was open and the body gone. What must have already felt like the lowest point of her life become even worse.  

She was so wrapped up in her grief that she didn’t even connect with Jesus when he first spoke to her.  Were her eyes full of tears?  Was she facing the wrong way, so  that she focused on the grave and didn’t realize that she needed to be looking elsewhere for her loved one?  

Or in the Resurrection was Jesus no longer bound by the physical restraints of this world but had become, once more, the Word of God, God’s expression of love?  We don’t know.  We don’t know exactly why she didn’t recognise him.  Jesus had to say her name, and only then  did she know that Jesus had risen from the dead.

The reason I mentioned that childhood cuddly toy is because that must have been close to how Mary reacted, reaching out to hold onto Jesus.  Whenever this scene is depicted in art, it is known by the Latin words ‘Noli me tangere’, or as in John’s Gospel, ‘Do not hold onto me’.

These words speak intensely to our current situation.  We are being forced to withhold touch from one another.  I have spoken to people deeply pained because they cannot visit their sick or elderly loved ones, in a time when to give comfort is all they want to do.  I am walking with people preparing for funerals whose grief is compounded by the fact that they couldn’t be with their loved ones when they died, and the funeral itself will have only a handful of people attending.

How could Jesus withhold that comfort from Mary?

In fact, the original Greek translates more as ‘Stop clinging to me’, which really invokes the imagery of Mary grasping at Jesus.  Her world had been turned upside down, and with his reappearance it seemed the right way up again.  No wonder she reached for him.

But Jesus had to say: ‘No.  I am back, but things are not the same as they were before.’  He would no longer be living with them, sharing in meals, and walking the streets with them.  He would be there now and then, but only on the way to ascending to the Father.  The words feel harsh but they mean something amazing has happened.  It would take time for his disciples to understand the true joy of Easter Day.

So, instead Jesus gave Mary a commission, to go back to the disciples and tell them what she had seen and pass on his invitation to them to know God as he knows God, ‘my Father and your Father’.  And this she does.

Jesus is there to comfort us, but not like a soft toy that we can hug and hold onto when we feel scared and lost.  The real comfort, the absolute joy, is what Jesus did on the cross, and what happened at the empty tomb. 

You don’t have to literally believe in the story of Adam and Eve, a snake and a piece of fruit, to know there is something fundamentally true about the Fall.  When we look at ourselves, and the world around us, we know that we are not as we should be.  Of course there is goodness in the world, but people are generally less kind, less compassionate, less connected to God than we know we can be.  War, thoughtless abuse of our planet, poverty, oppression, unfair distribution of resources – these things are what the Church calls ‘sin’.  

Now that’s a big word, but rather than a concept, think of it as everything that encourages us to turn away from God.  We dig a big trench between ourselves and God, and although God reaches out to us, time and time again we turn away.  

Jesus redeemed this whole situation.  He took the very worst of what people can do to one another – torture, betrayal, despair, murder – he took it all to the cross.  

And at the empty tomb, in the Resurrection, he destroyed sin and death.  Not because we no longer sin, but because through him the mistakes we make no longer lead to spiritual death.  Through Christ we find new life.  Christ died to make us good.

That redemption revealed itself at the empty tomb.  It was one thing to die.  It was another to show that death is not the end.  Pilate double-checked that Jesus was dead before he released the body for burial and posted guards outside the tomb to prevent it being stolen.  But despite all these precautions the body disappeared and Jesus appeared elsewhere, alive.  And all the darkness was destroyed because through death there is life.

This may feel a very strange Easter Day.  It is completely reasonable to be feeling more like Mary at the start of the Gospel reading than the inspired apostle to the Apostles she becomes at the end of the reading.  

It is okay to be mourning the distance to our loved ones, and indeed all the other normal aspects of daily life.  We are living through a defining crisis of our lifetime – no-one can expect us to “get over it”.  For Christians we are also coping with the loss of our communities, our church buildings, and our liturgies (meaning “the work of the people”, part of purpose in existence).  We are trying to find new ways to connect with each other, whilst remaining rooted in God.

And I repeat, that’s okay.  It took time for the disciples to adapt too.  It will come.  

The importance of this Easter Day is to remind ourselves that however bad it feels, we have hope. It is hope in the triumph of the Cross, in the empty tomb, in the Resurrection.  It is a steadfast and powerful hope in the Light of the World. 

He is risen!   Alleluia!

 

 

(Artwork: ‘Appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene after Resurrection’ by Alexander Ivanov)

Sermon for Good Friday

(John 18-19)

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

Not one of the Gospels describes the horror of the crucifixion.  They didn’t need to.  Those under the rule of the Romans in the 1st century, the Jews and early Christians, were perfectly well acquainted with what crucifixion looked like.  They understood the pain of the nails, the crushing pain of asphyxia, the rising panic, the utter humiliation.  They saw regularly the realities of what this death meant.  

And so the Evangelists didn’t need to describe it, and perhaps they couldn’t bear to.  They simply wrote ‘and they crucified him’.

Instead, it is in the prophecy of Isaiah 52-53 that we are given the words for the cross – despised, struck down, afflicted, wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities.

The Gospels prefer to describe the events which make this death different, before in the garden and the trials, and on the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows, as Christ made his slow, painful process to Calvary.

We will each have the moments of the Passion Reading which make us feel, in the words of Psalm 22, we are poured out like water, our hearts like wax melting in the depths of our bodies.

For me it is the moment in Luke’s Gospel when Peter has denied Jesus for the third time, and the Lord turns to look at him.  When Peter weeps bitterly, I feel his anguish.

I find this small human interaction between teacher and disciple, close friends, easy to grasp.  The Cross is much harder to comprehend.  Where do we begin?  The crown of thorns, so sharp that each and every movement much have brought new agony.  How did Christ bear it?  The nails?  Who would do that to another human being?

In the past I’ve sat before the garden of Repose of Maundy Thursday, reflecting the time Christ spent in Gethsemane, and wondered just how much Jesus knew.  To spend a few hours in prayer, contemplating what was coming – abuse, beating, flogging, crucifixion.  No wonder Christ was unable to sleep, and asked for this cup to be taken from him.  Jesus did not have a death wish, and certainly not in this horrendous manner.

This year, alongside a Holy Week which I am still coming to terms with, faced with prolonged isolation and knowing people are worried for loved ones and for their future, I asked God, ‘What do I preach into this darkness?’

And God said, ‘Love’.

How do we look on the cross, this instrument of cruelty and torture, and see anything by the very worst of evil?  

Because it is God who died there.

Jesus took upon himself the darkness of the world, every sin, the disobedience of human nature, the nothingness of death, and redeemed us.  

Because God loves us.

This act would break forever the chains of sin that enslave us. It would destroy death and open the gates of heaven to us.  

When we gaze upon the cross, we are shown the extent of God’s love for us because it reaches from heaven to the depths of the earth, to Hades itself, from the rising of the sun to its setting in the west.  It is everywhere and it is eternal.  There is nowhere that God’s love cannot reach.

Of course the cross bring us to tears.  It should.  This is our Lord and Saviour in agony.  And he does this for me, for you.  He loves us this much.

The longer we gaze upon the cross, we find that we no longer see only degradation and pain.  We see something transformed.  A cross, once a symbol of fear and pain, death and destruction, it is now a sign of life, eternal life.

Why did Jesus have to die at all?  In order to destroy death.  It had to be complete and obvious and public.  The Resurrection could not come after anything less.  Too easy otherwise for authorities to shrug it off and say ‘he was never dead!’  The manner of his death, the spear in his side, the double checking by the soldiers.  This is the end.

If that doesn’t feel fair. It isn’t.  Because life isn’t fair.  Jesus didn’t deserve a single moment of this.  He took upon himself the worst of what evil can do, and showed that it had no power. The light is not overcome by the light.

And given what Christ did for me, he doesn’t deserve my inattention, incomplete heart, lack of energy, or any single one of the times and ways that I let him down.

Jesus didn’t do this because it is fair.  He did it because he loves us, and will go to any lengths, even death on a cross, to give us what he wants to give us.  He gives us eternal life, and the freewill to choose it.  He will never stop loving me or you, but with arms outstretched on the cross he invites us to come to him.

This is love – not that we love him, but that he loves us, and came to us, and died for us, to give us perfect freedom.  This is the cross. This is love.

Amen.

 

(Artwork: ‘The Death of Jesus’ by James Tissot)

The Word of Reunion

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.                                                     (Luke 23.44-46)

The time has come for us to fix our eyes on our Lord and witness to his death.  Of those who stand with us at the foot of the cross some are stoic, some weep and some are afraid.  We know that fear – we are living through an unprecedented time of change and anxiety.  We worry about the coronavirus disease and the impact this is having on our health service, and for those in need of other medical treatment.  There are real concerns about how this will impact our futures; what businesses will suffer, what jobs will be lost; and what will life look like for our children when we come out the other side?

But the very last words of Jesus are not those of fear.  They are of complete trust, a moment of coming home, of reunion.  Again these are words from the childhood hymnbook of Jesus, from Psalm 31.  It has become the prayer of so many people since they were uttered on the cross; of the martyrs, men and women tortured and killed for their beliefs, of the sick and dying, of someone mourning a loved one, and all those baffled and confused by their suffering in whatever form it takes.  It is a prayer of trust – of giving up all pretence of control and of a total reliance on God.  It is a prayer that in weakness gives strength to so many.

Let us spend a few moments in silence as we reflect on what we each fear the most – is it public humiliation, loneliness, a painful death or the death of a loved one?  

Is it fearing to follow Jesus fully because we think we will fail him or because we are scared of what might be asked of us?  

Then, as we stand at the foot of the cross, let us offer up our response:  Lord, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

 

 

(Artwork: ‘Christ of Saint John of the Cross; by Salvador Dali

Sermon for Maundy Thursday

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another” (John 13.34)

(1 Corinthians 11.23-26, John 13.1-17, 31b-35)

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

This special night we remember three distinct events – Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, the Institution of the Eucharist at the Last supper, and Christ’s praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.

The first two elements of our worship feel, to me at least, disconnected from what is usual.  They require shared senses – tender and intimate touch in the washing, and taste in the sharing of bread and wine. 

They are also events of community. Although this year we will be remembering them together online, in truth their power remains in gathering people together in a physical sense.  

As had been said on multiple occasions over the last two weeks: the Church is not the building, it is the community.  However, the Church has always been a gathering of people.  The early Church gathered in private homes.  There is something powerful in the act of gathering.  It means people from across the spectrum of life come together. All find their place together in the Body of Christ. 

This physical gathering mirrors our theology.  After all, God did not boom across the universe at us, a sort of cosmic Zoom meeting, but was Incarnate.  The Word was made flesh, he came and dwelt with us.  Emmanuel, God with us – not God sort-of-with-us-but-at-a-physical-distance.  

It is one of the hardest paradoxes of this pandemic – our faith is an incarnational one, but we forced to reimagine it as a non-physical one.

However, this does not mean that this Maundy Thursday does not anything to teach us; in fact, we may discover new insights through the challenges of Covid-19.

Let’s begin with the foot washing of the disciples.  It was a lesson in humility and service.  In these difficult times the Church and Christians are being challenged to look again at service.  

If the Church’s priests cannot visit the sick and dying, how can they bring comfort and the sacraments to those who so desperately want and need them?  If Christians cannot do the things they have done in the past, how do we fulfil that task to ‘love one another’ in people’s time of greatest need?

Some of us will be called to service of action – being available to help others, delivering shopping or picking up prescriptions. Or we could be called to passive service – staying at home, not hoarding supplies.  

For staff of the NHS, care staff and funeral directors it will still be a service of touch, but that touch will feel riskier than ever.  And that in itself is an act of love.

I’ve been reflecting this week on the life of Fr Damien, a Belgian missionary, born in 1840.  He travelled to Hawaii, and after working there for nine years, he heard of an island, Molokai, where there was a sanatorium for about 800 people with incurable leprosy.  He volunteered to become the resident priest there, and remained with the people.  He worked with the residents to build houses, schools and meeting places; and encouraged participation by training prayer leaders from amongst the lepers.

It was inevitable that working in such close quarters, eventually Fr Damien caught the disease.  In one of his last letters he wrote, “My face and my hands are already decomposing, but the good Lord is calling me to keep Easter with Himself.” He died on April 15, 1889.

The Belgian Cross is one made of delicate white lace, not dissimilar to the thin, white patches of skin that are one of the first signs of the onset of leprosy.  It is a cross, fragile and risky, which seems fitting for this particular Holy Week.  

Next follows the Last Supper.  As a rural village church we try to hold the breadth of the Church of England’s theology – so I know there will be people reading this who hold very different understandings of what happens at the Eucharist.  What this, again, impresses upon me, is the power of Jesus to bring us together.  We gather in holy communion, one with another and with Christ.  Yes, we may separated physically, but we are being reminded of how important that gathering is.  

In the first letter to the Corinthians St Paul tells us that within 30 years of Christ’s death the Eucharist was already the central part of the Church’s worship, forming a thread across time and space to connect us to our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Without being able to actual gather with the people, I feel I am learning through this experience to walk in the shoes of people who for a long time have not been able to gather.  Particularly I am thinking of members of the persecuted church – people who, if they are able to gather at all, must do so in tiny numbers and hidden away.  

I am also thinking of people with disabilities who have found church buildings to be difficult, if not impossible, to access, and who despite requesting other forms of access have been denied. Their voice has been strong over the last couple of weeks in pointing out how quickly the church has found solutions to access when it needs to.

So now you have not been able to attend church, what does it mean to you to gather at the Lord’s table?  When you have the opportunity again, how will respond to Christ’s invitation?

Finally, we come to the event which perhaps speaks most powerfully into our current situation.  After the servant’s service and the sharing in bread and wine, Jesus goes to the Garden of Gethsemane.  As Luke records it he went a stone’s throw away from the disciples – they were together but physically apart. 

And Christ prayed.  He offered up his fears and doubts, his desire not to follow the Way of Sorrows.  He begged the Father for another option until his sweat fell like great drops of blood.

If this tells us anything, it is that Jesus understands what we are feeling now.  There is plenty of time for acts of service and joyful gathering.  But now there is time for solitary prayer and reflection. It is okay to place ourselves before God and say, ‘What is going on? Please, remove this cup from us.’

For many people this is the hardest action of all – to wait on the Lord.  It underlines our powerlessness.  And that hurts and frustrates.

But God speaks in the silence, not the whirlwind.  

With time Jesus, having placed all before the Father, listened, submitted and obeyed: “not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22.42). When he stood and returned to the disciples, he was ready to face the coming events of Good Friday.  It was going to get worse before it got better, but by aligning his will with the Father’s, Jesus was prepared.

If we too submit to this time of separation, this extended period of the Watch, we might just find that there is much for us to learn, and that the commandment that we love one another becomes the easiest response of all.

Amen.

 

(Artwork: ‘Christ in Gethsemane’ by Heinrich Hoffman)

The Word of Triumph

When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’                         (John 19.30a )

Hours have passed and still Jesus hangs upon the cross.  Each breathe is agony as Christ struggles to lift his body, and the effort makes each final word shorter and shorter.  Despite this he doesn’t now say ‘I’m done’ or ‘I can’t go on’ but ‘it is finished’.  These are words of completion and of triumph.  

The task that Jesus undertook was at the point of perfection.  God’s work has been done, and in that end was a new beginning.  It is hard for us today to move easily between sorrow and joy, but in our self-isolation and quarantine, if we look forward to that moment when it is finished we will see that there will be only complete and unending happiness.  No more pain, no more tears, only joy.

Let us spend a few moments in silence as we reflect on our own mortality in light of the words in 1 Corinthians 15: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.  Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?’  

Then, as we stand at the foot of the cross, let us offer up our response:  Lord, I thank you with all my heart.

 

 

(Artwork: San Damiano Cross, before which St Francis of Assisi was praying when he is said to have received the commission from the Lord to rebuild the Church. It now hangs in the Basilica of Saint Clare in Assisi)

The Word of Distress

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.                    (John 19.28-29)

When something is withheld, we seem to automatically crave it more.  It is why Lenten disciplines of fasting and self-denial are as difficult as they are.  In fasting we enter into Christ’s our suffering in the wilderness, and prepare ourselves for times when the things we yearn for are denied to us, including life itself.  In this pandemic, our Lent has become one larger season of denial, and it hurts.

It is no surprise that Jesus was thirsty – he was drained by blood loss and sweating.  Unable to move he longs for someone to give him something to slake his thirst.  As we watch someone takes a sponge, dips it in sour wine and then sticks it on a hyssop branch, lifting it up to Jesus’ mouth.  It might be all that there was, but it was not an action that would bring relief from a parched mouth.  It was a thoughtless gesture without real care or love.  It was the kiss of Judas once more, an empty sign.

But as we watch we realize that Jesus is telling us about something beyound his physical needs.  From his place of desolation he thirsts for more than water.  

Was his greatest pain that of rejection?  To be unwanted, despised, to know that others wished to inflict sadness and hurt upon him, and yet his love was unbounded.  He still longed for us to come back to him.  He thirsts for us.

And we for him.  We don’t always know it, but that desire for God is deep within us.  Jesus saw it in the Samaritan woman by the well when he offered her living water.  In a moment he will die and his side will be opened and out will pour that living water.

Let us spend a few moments in silence as we reflect on the first verse of Psalm 42: “as a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.’  

Then, as we stand at the foot of the cross, let us offer up our response:  Lord, I yearn for you.

 

 

(Artwork: ‘Issenheim Altarpiece’ by Matthias Grünewald)

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