Sermon, Trinity V, 9 July 2023 – the Vicar

My father, whom I am sorry you did not know, because he died about a year before we came here, was full of funny sayings, which continue make me smile when I think of them.

Dad would not eat pork, ham or sausages without English mustard, French would not do, neither Meaux nor Dijon. The suggestion of mustard with either lamb or beef would always elicit his oft used dictum “Mustard with mutton is the sign of a glutton, mustard with beef is the sign of the thief.”

I was reminded of this and smiled again when recently Beatrice was recommended a thoroughly good recipe website, with really good ideas for supper Mustard with Mutton – Diary of a Glutton – do take this away as a top tip.

Of course, in today’s Gospel Our Lord caricatures himself as glutton:

“For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say he has a demon; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”

He goes on to say “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” What’s going on here?

First of all, where are we in Matthew’s Gospel narrative: Jesus’s preaching ministry follows on from the confirmation of the 12. At much this time, John the Baptist is arrested, and John sends from prison his disciples to see Jesus. John’s fate seems to be attracting opprobrium, despite the sensation he had been. Jesus begins today’s reading slightly despairing “What do  people want? On the one hand you had the ascetic Baptist who ate and drank nothing and on the other hand you have me, who is happy to go to outcasts and sinners and enjoy a party, and you’re not happy with either. What’s this like, well it’s like children playing make believe games, who could pretend a jolly game like a wedding

“saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced”

Or one the other hand a sad game, like a funeral procession, which you would probably see every day in the market place, going by, and it would be easy to imitate with the exaggerated dirges of the professional mourners verging on something over the top

“we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented.”

Like children (without screens in those days), who just won’t get into the imaginative spirit, nothing is good enough for a bit of pretend or imagine or dream.

And so John is dismissed and Jesus derided. You recalcitrant market-place-children, just won’t dream a little.

Jesus is pretty clear that “this generation” is not just missing the point, it’s going to miss the boat too.

There’s something self-conscious about this reference to himself as a glutton and drunkard, which is not just about Jesus liking his food, or his mustard with 1st century mutton.

Bear with me, this glutton and drunkard saying has a pre-history: There’s a rather chilling example of what happens to rebellious sons in the Book of Deuteronomy chapter 20:

“If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father and mother…. they shall say to the elders of the city, this our son is stubborn and rebellious, he is a glutton and a drunkard. Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death.”

It is not just that Jesus loves a good dinner; he realises that he is being cast as THE stubborn and rebellious SON, the inaccurate and inexplicable euphemism for this is gluttony and drunkenness. Thus, forebodingly Jesus foresees that he will be rejected and put to death.

There are several ironies in this passage. The children at the start of the reading just won’t play. They’re so busy with other preoccupations, that they won’t dance to either the tune of JBAP or Jesus, both of whom exemplify the truth at the heart of the dance. But they are not really the children this is all about, they are really the adults – this generation, the Children of Israel, who will not see perhaps because they are so caught up in their righteousness and sense of self importance what the Kingdom’s message is proclaiming.

But there are other children referred to in this story this morning. Not children actually, but infants – very little ones, about them Jesus says:

I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. 

The market place children are too full of care, they are the wise and prudent. It’s the babes that all truth is being revealed to. They who should not understand are being offered it all on a plate, indeed their burdens are in the process of being lifted.

It’s no accident that in the first lesson that the Messiah appears as a humble man, on an equally humble beast of burden. This sets the tone for what the Lord’s coming kingdom will be characterised by, and made evident, as Jesus himself enters Jerusalem in like manner in the time ahead. In the meanwhile Jesus says to the infants:

Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

The irony here of course is not just about the children not being children but grown ups, but what Jesus is offering rest, and an easy burden, is actually rather more than that. His light burden which he offers his infants, is his cross, he’ll tell us this very directly in chapter 16 “if any will come after me let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”

But because Jesus takes this freely, willingly and lightly himself, so he is strengthening our arms and our shoulders, and most importantly our resolve so that we might

Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

 

 

Sermon Sunday 16 July 2023 Trinity VI – the Vicar

Last weekend I spent some time with a farmer relative. He’s the son and grandson of generations of farmers who loves the land enjoys explaining what his life and work consists of. His favourite occupation is using his rather splendid tractor to plough, tend or drill his fields. It’s so state of the art it can calculate the precise quantities of fertiliser or seed needed according to the drainage or quality of the soil – it’s something to do with satellites. It’s all very mind-blowing.

I don’t think the sower, whom Jesus almost certainly would have seen going past, was able to calculate soil depth and drainage with anything like that degree of accuracy! We’ll come on to the story in just a minute. It’s one of the greats for good reason, it connects with something pretty primitive in all of us. The idea of seed-time and harvest has multiple resonances, and for all our disassociation with nature, especially in Town perhaps, it situates us hearing Jesus’s words alongside one of the most fundamental exercises of the stewardship of God’s creation.

I have good news and bad news for you. Let’s save the good news till the end.

This last week the General Synod met in York. I have very mixed feelings about Synods and I don’t tend to follow them with huge interest or to report on them.

On the hand lots of people sitting in hot rooms for a very long time (five full days – over a weekend in July) is just incredibly off-putting; on the other, a national Church, which has always set store by a fully engaged discussion between Bishops, Clergy and People has to have a mechanism for this to happen.

What took place there over last weekend and into this last week might merit some telling. There was nothing boring about how it conducted its business, indeed, for many of the wrong reasons, what went on managed to attract a considerable degree of press interest.

It did not start well. The Archbishop of York managed to give the impression in an unscripted remark that there were problems with calling God Father. It was something of a storm in a teacup but before things had got started there was unfortunate press interest. It all got a lot worse on Sunday, when for any who did not already know, a really grim administrative falling out became uncontainable and the optics of it have been terrible.

If I try to pot the story, forgive inevitable omissions of detail.

  • In the fallout from the many abuse scandals, the Independent Commission on Child Sexual Abuse urged the Church of England to appoint an independent safeguarding standing body to call the Church to account in relation to this area.
  • In early 2022 a Commission was appointed comprising 3 members. They were given until the end of 2023 to define their terms of reference.
  • One of the three, the chair was responsible for a databreach and had to stand back during an investigation. The two other members continued to work on the terms of reference. A new interim chair was appointed whom they did not get on with.
  • Eventually in June this year things were so bad that the situation became irretrievable. As things unravelled the two original members let their situation be known on social media and they were asked to leave.
  • Because they had seen their task as primarily the understandable championing of the rights and grievances of survivors, those groups and other supporters were vociferous in the defence of the two who were let go. The Archbishops’ Council were clearly saddened by what had happened but felt they had no choice but to begin constituting the Independent Board afresh.
  • Those who left have reported their concerns to the Charity Commission.
  • For what it’s worth my view is that the lack of absolute clarity from the Archbishop’s Council at the outset allowed the group to start its work before the terms of reference were in place, and it is hard to see how this was not going to become complicated.
  • There is no question that abuse in and the connected with the Church has been catastrophic and ruinous to people’s lives. The Church needs help in making sure that it endangers no one and helps everyone. Abuse comes in many forms, and because the faithful are at their most vulnerable when before God, they are most easily exploited, and power in the hands of the unconscious or the perverse is most lethal.
  • There was a failure in getting this group’s work started. Clarifying the difference between the process of its establishment and the group’s eventual tasks was not effective. The group started its work when it was not ready. Because its outreach to victims and survivors was so nurturing and good, sight seems to have been lost of how that might have been better timed.
  • Sacking good people, well intentioned people always looks bad.
  • It was all utterly awful, and would have been better avoided if possible.
  • I hope this helps disentangle some of what you might have seen reported.
  • While occasionally taken aback by some of what goes on “at the centre” of the Church of England, this was not its finest hour, but let it not be misunderstood, the Church dearly wishes to be accountable and safe, and I hope it can achieve that this time.
  • Bureaucracies don’t like admitting they were wrong or did not communicate well. They were wrong to lack clarity and to communicate expectations with directness. I hope they learn in future.
  • The second excitement at Synod was the update on the status of services of blessing for same sex couples.
  • In February the House of Bishops did two things at once.
  • They offered an abject apology to gay people for appalling behaviour towards them on the one hand – it was grovelling in the extreme, and almost just a fraction embarrassing.
  • After issuing that, they then let be seen the draft sets of prayers for blessing ceremonies. On this hand the services were unusable and also embarrassing.
  • At some level this was all politics.
  • We cannot pretend that the Church of England was not born of politics and there is no pretending it does not live by and through a constant trade-off or compromise between two irreconcilable visions of the Church. Of all Churches, for all is bumbling and chaos (as just cited), it is a meeting point of mutually exclusive ways of being, and this will mean abrasive and ugly rows. Playing or being involved in politics over issues which really matter, especially at the moment, when issues about gender and sexuality are contested in extraordinary ways in our society, will be costly and if we are in this organisation we are not going to be untouched by this.
  • While I struggle with the prayers as proposed, I cannot help but see how they came about. The small print allows clergy a bit of latitude to add and supplement, which as the time comes I will be inclined to do.
  • At Synod, the update led to fierce discussions in and out of the chamber. I don’t do social media, there was a storm there too, which I have been spared.
  • It seems no one is happy, and in November this will be repeated when the Synod will meet again. They’ve got in a tangle now over whether or not there should be a vote about it.

Synod also discussed whether or not there should be charges for marriage, and I must admit I am with those who thinks that as with baptisms, we should not charge statutory fees for marriages. Clearly musicians must be paid, but fees for pastoral offices were waived during the pandemic and I think this was a positive innovation.

I said there would be some good news, at the end. Waiving marriage fees might be good news for some, but I can offer better than that.

Today’s Parable of the Sower Gospel, and its precursor from the prophet Isaiah present the best possible news. There’s something I saw in this reading that I had not seen before. I don’t know if my farmer relative and his tractor might have helped.

It’s about the maths.

Seed is sown a bit indiscriminately as hand sowing is probably wont to do. The seed goes in four directions: the path, rocky ground, thorns, and good soil. We don’t know what proportion went to which soil type – but that is not the point. When the harvest came, from the good soil, even if it was only a quarter of the total sown, some gave a hundredfold, some sixty, and even the worst thirtyfold.

Any farmer would be pleased that after an inauspicious start. Isaiah foresaw this “My word…shall not return to me empty, it shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” He carries on and underlines the word he sends out and waters and tends like seed is in fact his people. He continues speaking to the seed “You shall go out with joy and be led back in peace, and the mountains and hills shall burst into song and all the fields shall clap their hand.”

I am sure as Jesus saw the sower, he was reminded of this passage and wished to confide in his disciples a truth they would come to see only much later.

So many realities obscure our vision of God is doing, of what a rich harvest he is preparing. Let not human error, bureaucracy and fallibility renew our vision, of the whole of creation, fields of corn on the hillside, clapping hands and singing for joy.

Sermon, The Visitation of Mary, 2 July 2023 – Rosamond Miskin, LLM

May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit

At present, if we look at the state of the world today, you could say that joy is in short supply.  So many disasters; the terrible rail crash in India, the death of 800 people at sea, the implosion of the Titan sub that led to the deaths of its five passengers who wanted to plumb the depths of the ocean to explore the wreck of the famous ship, Titanic, that sank in 1912. Then there was the random murder of the two students in Nottingham who had been enjoying a night out.

These are just samples of the tragedies that go on time after time.  Now accompanied by climate change, the after effect of the pandemic, which has left many people grieving, and the cost-of-living crisis causing anxiety and despair.

You could say, then, that we are in a joyless world.  Yet all is not lost.  We, as Christians can, despite all the horrors, keep joy in our hearts.  We can keep singing praises to God for offering us his son, Jesus, as our hope of eternal life and salvation for us all.  Our joy rests not only in any happy present moments that continue to exist in our troubled times but also in this message of eternal salvation.  This does not mean that we do not feel devastated when tragedy occurs, but we have faith, when we feel we are in the dark, that nothing can separate us from the Divine plan that God has for all of us to share in his eternal kingdom. It is a plan rooted in love that will always triumph in the end over fear.

For an affirmation of this joy in God’s purpose for us we can find it expressed loud and clear in today’s Gospel reading which describes the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah.  When Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, she is filled with the Holy Spirit and blesses Mary and the fruit of her womb.

Elizabeth’s unborn child, to be known as John the Baptist, leaps in her womb for joy. Mary then gives us her Song of Praise in which her spirit rejoices in God.  The role of the Holy Spirit is evident here.  Mary’s spirit is the source of her joy and Elizabeth’s blessing upon Mary is prompted by the Holy Spirit. Joy all around then, brought about by the activity of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit can do this because it is the messenger from God, offering us the love of God.  If we look at St Paul’s letter to the Romans, in his Chapter 12 he urges true Christians to be ‘ardent in spirit’. In verse 15 he says ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep’.  If we allow the Holy Spirit to be our inspiration and guide then we too can find joy in a troubled world.

The Holy Spirit was active in Mary and Elizabeth as they were both women of faith in God.  Elizabeth ‘believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord’.  Belief, despite being barren and in old age, that she would conceive a son.  Mary, having been told by the angel Gabriel that despite being a virgin she would conceive also, submits herself to God’s will.  Initially perplexed she then says: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’

Such is the huge significance of this rejoicing that it is expressed whilst Jesus and John are still in the womb.  In the old age of Elizabeth and the virginity of Mary, the circumstances of these two impending births are unique and the narrative that describes these two women coming together to rejoice is also unique in that it only features in Luke, nowhere else in the New Testament.  You could say that Elizabeth and Mary were able to rejoice because of their unique status as the mothers-to-be of John the Baptist and Jesus the Son of God. That may be so, but we can all rejoice in pregnancy and birth.  We can also find in today’s Gospel reading a value put upon unborn life.  When reading articles on the Visitation on the internet, I came across an article by the Bethlehem Lutheran church which says that in Luke’s text ‘we learn to care for unborn life’.  The circumstances in which Elizabeth and Mary find themselves is unique in one sense but their meeting each other as two pregnant women is an everyday happening that might apply to any woman living in any age.  What is happening is that Elizabeth is helping us to recognise salvation and Mary, whilst standing for continuity and history, inaugurates a new era.  Nevertheless, as given in the Commentary on Luke by James Woodward, Paula Gooder and Mark Price: ‘salvation is also expressed in everyday life’.

Another characteristic of both Elizabeth and Mary is that they are both humble.  In this manner they find favour with God.  They are both the mothers-to-be of two men, Jesus, and John, who will also live a life of humility and service to God.

I would like to conclude my sermon by reflecting upon images of the Visitation in art.  Many of the images I looked at depict Elizabeth as an old woman, but I found it interesting that in the ancient icons of the Orthodox church both Mary and Elizabeth look of the same age.  Was there a religious motive for not portraying Elizabeth in old age?  I do not know but we do know from the Bible that Elizabeth was in old age and her husband Zechariah loses his speech temporarily for not believing it possible for his wife to conceive at her age.  He did not, at that moment, see that ‘nothing is impossible with God’.

That sentence is very uplifting, and we can keep it in mind when we are going through hard times.  So let us take heart and continue to rejoice, as Elizabeth and Mary did, in the love of God.

Sermon, Trinity II, 15 June 2023 – the Vicar

Today’s readings present on the one hand in the Book of Exodus the calling of the Children of Israel to be Kingdom and Nation of Priests, and on the other the naming of the 12. The first is in some measure the precursor of the second of course. Just as Moses sets forth before Israel how God had formed them as a nation, so Jesus’s gathering of the 12 is his reconstitution of Israel. In both cases this is born of divine compassion.

Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself

But when Jesus saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd God’s self-identification with his people is from the outset – when they were suffering in Egypt, he bound himself to them. In turn Jesus has compassion on the crowds, and the 12 become the new structure of a divinely ordered nation, once again bound to God in this personal way, which in the New Paschal Mystery, with Jesus’s death as the lamb of God of the renewed Passover.

These great themes of adoption, Passover, divine compassion and feasting, which the Passover meal is par-excellence, are responded to in the motet we shall hear during communion today, Byrd’s incomparable Ave verum corpus.

 HAIL, true Body born of the Virgin Mary, who truly suffered as a sacrifice upon the Cross for man, whose pierced side flowed with water and with blood, be for us a foretaste [of heaven] in the trial of death.  O sweet and holy Jesus, Son of Mary, have mercy on me.

It’s one of the devotional hymns associated with the Feast of Corpus Christi, which we marked just over a week ago, always observed on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday.

As we are having this motet today as part of the wider music festival that shapes the month of June, I wanted to say something about the composer William Byrd born 1540 died in 1623. It is an important anniversary.

It was not without significance that two pieces, two very different pieces of William Byrd’s were sung during the Coronation in May. Something of the contrast between them tells us about the man and the times in which he composed. His place in the firmament of English choral music is so important, and we have been so lucky these last three weeks to hear music by him.

And William Byrd holds a very special place in my musical sensibilities, 30 years ago this Summer we had the Byrd 4 part as the mass setting. In a way the powerful musical impulses of work represents a striving to hold in tension almost irreconcilable dichotomies of faith being battled over in the 16th, which only music can transcend, operating in spheres way beyond words.

Byrd’s life is hard to piece together, not unlike Tallis his teacher before him, there are fragments only about their early lives and there is an element of conjecture. Certainly from 1569 Byrd was a gentleman of the Chapel Royal, a musician at Elizabeth’s court. But there is much evidence to suggest he may have sung there too a boy, and so was in Royal musical circles, if not service, for much of his long 80 year life. In a way as a Catholic, as we shall discover, in the reigns of Elizabeth and James, he hid in plain sight, under their noses. They were cultural connoisseurs, Elizabeth particularly, and for all her independent spirit, was clear that she had no interest in “making windows into men’s souls”. A genius on the scale of Byrd, pupil of his great master Tallis was to be harnessed not fettered. Indeed, Elizabeth gave them the publishing rights for all published music and music paper in her realm from 1575-1595 – although Tallis died in 1585. An important monopoly its publications give us some insight into their remarkable range as composers, and their ability both to accommodate in their lifetimes the ebb and flow of ecclesiastical change.

The first of Byrd’s compositions played in May was his beautiful piece Prevent us O Lord. In the tradition of Tallis’s deliberate clear propositional Protestant style, it sets to music words of a collect in ways which underline meaning. Its elegance is assured, clean, pure and didactic. There is no doubting its intention of the dependence of the faithful upon God in all things. It was composed we think in 1580 – as fevered anti-Catholic feeling was running high, Jesuit missionaries were coming to England, and plots against the Queen were emerging. It is a statement of Court religion, utterly reliant on the the Book of Common Prayer and Elizabeth’s Settlement.

The Gloria from the Mass for Four Voices, the setting we heard two Sundays ago, was sung soon after Prevent us O Lord. Each of them bracketed the swearing of the controversial Coronation Oath. The Gloria came as a Catholic blast just after it in fact. Its origin is very interesting.

It was written about 1593, maybe earlier. For some time by then Byrd had taken something of a back seat at the Chapel Royal. He still composed music of all sorts for use at court, but in his retreat with his many children in Essex, under the patronage of the Petre family at Ingatstone Hall, he wrote music for secret celebrations of the catholic mass, by missionary priests. Not to attend worship locally as an Anglican, which he did not, resulted in heavy fines which he paid, was one thing, to attend secret masses and to write for them was extremely dangerous.

He did this while on the payroll of the Chapel Royal, and still dedicating work to the Queen.

We can only speculate on what drew him from the Established religion and who knew what about his practice of the old faith, that meant he was able to survive with relatively little scrutiny, although there were moments of sanction, and he was not spared considerable fines.

Elizabeth did not cause him to confess, and he leaves us almost no words of his own, but his music tells its own tale.

There are scholars like Diarmaid Muculloch who maintain that the choral tradition, central at the Tudor Court throughout the 16th c with all its changes, and in the Cathedrals, was the single biggest brake on full reformation in England. I am inclined to agree. Byrd, and Tallis before him, exemplified what the reformers were so keen to underline as essential: musical adornment should merely point the meaning of words of the new liturgy. But behind this clear and deliberate and beautiful music, were men whose entire lives since 1505 in the case of Tallis and 1540 in the case of Byrd, had been shaped by music making in Catholic settings. Tallis as lay singer in a monastery, until it was dissolved in 1540, Waltham Abbey, Byrd, probably as a boy in the chapel royal, during the reign of Catholic Queen Mary (with a choir directed by Tallis). Mary’s heart was buried in St James’s in the chapel itself under the choir-stalls. I like to think it was buried there because her heart was lost in the sublime music-making of Tallis in her reign. Byrd was always loyal and understanding of his Patron Elizabeth, but his heart was lost too, in that ancient inheritance of the Catholic faith, whose residue, despite the convulsions of the age, and because of his quiet persistence, was not lost in Anglicanism.

It is easy to see why one late-16th-century music collector described Byrd as “a glory to our race, and a nightingale to our people”.

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon, Trinity III, 25th June 2023 – Lessons from the last 15 months – the Reverend Glen Ruffle

“And now, the end is near, the time has come, the final sermon…” 

If someone had said to me in 2018 that I would have to sing in public (I admit, badly!), then I don’t think I would have even continued talking to William about priestly ministry. I don’t sing.

And yet here I am, and William I am sure remembers perfectly well my horrified reaction when he told me I would have to sing at the eucharist!  “Sing” of course is a strong word for my efforts… I do heartily apologise to the amazing choir for my noise! I am not gifted in the vocal department, but thanks so much to Mike and Simone for giving me a few lessons, and helping me to lose the immense fear I had.

This is my last regular Sunday at St Marks. But I’ve learned that in God’s hands, never say never. I said goodbye to Moscow in 2018, only to end up back there in 2021. I’m not ruling out, however unlikely, another return…though I fear it will be a long time before anything changes in that situation.

Since I left Russia, it’s been an adventure. I arrived in Primrose Hill in March 2022, a little lost and confused, but equally slightly excited. I felt totally cared for, and that is credit to William and Beatrice, and the church, who really did welcome the stranger at short notice!

Though William doesn’t believe it, I spent 3 genuinely lovely months in his basement. Then 3 equally lovely – though very hot – summer months with Judy, who kindly opened her house to me. I woke up every day thinking “how on earth did I get to live in Primrose Hill? I’m so blessed!” And finally I found a bit more stability in an office block with some rooms attached to it, near Westbourne Park.

And on top of all that, I also got to attend the Lambeth Conference, spend 4 months studying in beautiful Annecy in France, visit Geneva, do some training in Cologne (and Woking!), get priested, and – oh yes – get engaged to be married!

If ever I thought joining the church would be nice boring tea parties in the garden of a village vicarage, that idea is long gone…

I’ve been trying to think what the key takeaways are – what have I learned? Of course, I’ve learned so much about vestments – chasubles, dalmatics, stoles, maniples, burses and copes. I could go on. But what has been the real, more deeper learning?

First, I like that sparrow in today’s reading. God knew where I was, where I fell. And God saw, and God cared. And God said, “in this difficult time, I will test you. But if you respond well, you will grow so much!” I really think, in all the experiences of life, it is how we respond that makes us. Every situation offers a choice: humbly continue to love, try to care, be honest and open; or attack the other person, be selfish, cynical and self-seeking, and blame everyone else.

Adam and Eve: eat the apple, or obey God. Abraham: obey or disobey God’s request to sacrifice Isaac. Would he trust that God knew best? Joseph: stay with the Potiphar’s wife, or do the right thing and run. The Bible is full of key moments where how we respond is what makes us.

I’ve done some stupid things this last year, but also some good things, and I know its the challenges I have embraced that have made me a much better person.

Some of you are aware as well that I have been working part-time for the Anglican Communion, the global network of Anglican churches across the world. This has been fascinating. But the key issue facing us all is one of unity.

There are movements in the global church to separate from the Communion because of disagreements over practice and theology. I completely agree that these things are important, but do disagreements really mean we have to start a new denomination? Cannot we continue to sit in the same room, the same family, and do the harder work, of continuing to talk? I can’t get rid of my cousins – they are my blood family! I might not speak to them, but the genetics mean they are always my cousins.

The same with our faith: if we still hold to Jesus Christ as central, as the Way, the Truth and the Life, and if we still stand in the footsteps of our Christian ancestors, knowing that the path of following Jesus is not the easy way – it will produce difficulties for us if we do it rightly – then surely we can support and encourage each other rather than going to sit in different rooms!

Our gospel reading today talked of this: if we are disciples, we are not above our master. We must realise that God is holy and all powerful: fear only him, not people! Because yes, this world will mock us.

And if we are disciples, then that can have a deep personal cost. The gospel reading says if your family reject you because you follow Jesus, you ought to choose the harder choice of staying with Christ. Discipleship can be costly.

But the gospel says continue to worship God, for he alone can destroy body and soul in hell. Think on that: it is an amazing bargain for us! All we do is say before temporary, fallible people, that we belong to Jesus – and we get claimed before almighty, eternal, infallible God! It’s a bargain!

And who are we to judge? Jesus calls us to humility. Ought we not to worry about our own sins rather than those of someone else? God is the judge of the other person, just as he is the judge of you and me. It’s like the sheep and goats: in the Middle East they all look similar, but God knows the difference. When time is called, God will separate them and he will decide who is truly his, and who is not. It’s not our call to judge one another! If we do, we steal God’s job!

So let us not argue, judge and fight. We have that in Parliament every day – and have you ever seen a Labour MP eviscerate a Conservative and the Conservative respond by saying “Oh, you are right! How silly I was, I will change my mind”. Of course not! Attacking and blaming does not work!

Real change comes from dying to our own desires, and learning to walk together, listening to the other, and learning to trust.

So they are my two take aways from the year, two ways I have been formed. Embrace the strange challenge of the new. Thuribles, chasubles, choreography around the altar – for me it was all new. I could have said “no!”; I could have offended lots of people being stroppy, sticking to the comfort of what I knew from my limited experience. Instead I have mostly tried to learn, and what a reward it has been. Thank you to all of you – even in your weak moments, you have taught me!

And stick together in love. Yes we will disagree, but the world is full of people who disagree. The church ought to be different, saying loudly and clearly “we disagree but we are still committed to each other!

And Yes, you might be right; but Jesus never asks us to win arguments; he calls us to serve him, sacrifice our lives to his goals, and to serve each other. Find your life to lose it; lose your life to find it.

I went to Russia to a life I knew; I lost it. A new life was given to me here – and I feel like I have found so much. So, to all of you, thank you.

 

Sermon, Ascension, Sunday 18 May 2023 – Ros Miskin

May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit

It gives me much pleasure to have this opportunity to preach to you this evening here at St Mary’s.

An evening that is of great significance in our Christian calendar as it is the evening of Ascension Day.  The Ascension marks the culmination of the earthly existence of Jesus as he is swept up into heaven to sit at the right hand of God and be glorified. Preceding this great event was the commissioning of the disciples and here I take my text from the Gospel of Mark.  ‘Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation’.

Reading through other references to the Ascension in the New Testament, whilst we can find it in the Gospels of Luke and John and the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, there is no reference to it in Matthew’s Gospel.  Matthew’s finishing point is the commissioning of the disciples on the mountain of Galilee.  Perhaps this is because it has coincided with the Resurrection.  Luke tells us that Jesus leads the disciples to Bethany, then lifts up his hands and blesses them ‘withdraws and is carried up to heaven’.  This blessing, according to the Jerome Biblical Commentary, is the only mention in the Gospels of Jesus blessing people.  The only mention, but not so in art. By the 9th century, in the domes of churches we can find Christ making a blessing gesture with his right hand.

In John chapter 20 we have the powerful scene in which Mary Magdalene, having wept by the empty tomb where Jesus was laid, sees Jesus and tries to hold on to him.  Jesus replies: ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.  But go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father to my God and your God.  Here we find the universal application of the Ascension; it is there for all of us.  Finally, in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, we are told that the disciples will, by the power of the Holy Spirit, be witnesses to the ends of the earth.  Jesus was then ‘lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight’.  Two men then appear to the disciples in white robes telling them that Jesus will come back the same way.  We can take this to mean that the Ascension will eventually be followed by Jesus coming again in glory.  As the Nicene Creed gives it to us: ‘he shall come again in glory to judge both the quick and the dead: whose kingdom shall have no end’.

The New Testament, then, is telling us of the commissioning of the disciples by Jesus and his ascension to heaven.  Looking at these texts, though, I would say that it is a bit of a bumpy ride in terms of some uncertainties. Let us have a look at these uncertainties. First, there is a question mark over the Ascension narrative in the Gospel of Mark.  If some of the most ancient authorities are right, then Mark ends at verse 8 of chapter 16 which would omit his Ascension narrative of verse 19.  It is not certain but I think it is probable that verses 19 and 20 can be included because verse 20 contains the words ‘good news’ which is the expression used by Mark at the outset of his Gospel. His opening sentence reads: ‘the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’. These words ‘good news’ are I believe the defining words of Mark’s Gospel.

The ride gets bumpier when we look at the writings of the third century philosopher, Origen, who concluded that the Ascension was an ascension of the mind not body.  Following the questioning posed by philosophy, if we look at today’s world, with its developments in science and cosmology, they do not sit easily with the concept of a physical heaven.  In his book ‘Meeting God in Mark’ Rowan Williams responds that there is no evidence from heaven that God exists, but God changes things from the heart of the world, not by intervention from the sky.  He does not need a banner in the sky to proclaim his existence.

The debates will no doubt continue but what stands out in my mind when reflecting upon the Ascension, is the cloud. The cloud that, according to Acts, lifted Jesus up and took him out of sight. This text would not make sense if it were an ascension of the mind rather than the body. The cloud features in depictions of the Ascension in art and the cloud of incense in our worship demonstrates that God is present but cannot be seen by us in our earthly life.  As St Paul puts it, we cannot yet see God face to face, only in the mirror darkly.  The Old Testament also gives us the cloud.  In Exodus, God leads Moses and the Israelites in ‘a pillar of cloud by day’ to guide them on their way.  The cloud means that which is above us, present, but we are to rely upon faith in God not the bodily presence of God.

When we look up at the clouds, climb mountains and send rockets into space, I believe that we are affirming that ascension is life affirming, exciting and joyous.  In a ninth century manuscript, known as the Drogo Sacramentary, we see Jesus on his last step to the top of a mountain and God holding out his hand to lift him up.  With this joy in mind, let me finish with the joy of the Psalmist who wrote in Psalm 47 that ‘God has gone up with a shout’.

AMEN

Sermon, Sunday 14 May 2023,Acts 17: 22-31 and John 14: 15-21, Double Baptism – The Reverend Glen Ruffle

“To the unknown god” – perhaps it should be ‘to the unknown song’ given Britain’s latest Eurovision disaster! But it was “to the unknown god” that the words inscribed on an altar in Athens 2000 years ago appealed, and they are the words St Paul leapt upon. The unknown God: this is the God I preach to you!

Paul said: God is not unknown! God has revealed his character to us: God saved his people from slavery in Egypt. He made them into a mighty nation. He makes promises with us – and keeps them. His love extends to every person on earth. He will bring judgement and fairness to the earth.

It’s judgement and Love. Many people find those two idea hard to sit together – if you love me, you won’t be angry at me. Instead, you will give me what I want and make me happy.

But in the gospel today, Jesus said “If you love me, you will obey my commandments”. If you love someone, you will listen to them, and trust them. If you trust them, you will obey them.

Parents are given to us to help us and lead us. Parents have to balance love and judgement all the time. If parents don’t use discipline, their children grow up without structure, become selfish and ruin the lives of other people. If parents don’t use love, their children feel unwanted, insecure and lost.

So we listen to our parents and we obey them, because we know that they want to help us, that they have our best interests in their hearts. The same with God: his desire is that we become loving and compassionate and follow his lead. Look at the world today: it is a mess. This is what happens when we follow our plans. But if we stop, and say to God “we will follow your plan”, then we begin a new abundant life.

So love and obedience are very much linked! If we love our parents, we obey them. If we love God, we obey him. They want “what is best for us”, and this means character formation, making you more like Jesus. You might think a shiny Lamborghini is best for you, but without the right character, it really is not!

Baptism is a moment when we stop our lives and say “we recognise that when we do our thing, it is not so good. We want to follow God’s way, God’s path. So we want to start again”.

So the water is like washing ourselves: we wash the old dirt and old me away. And then we are clean and fresh, ready to start again: symbolic of a new life, a new decision to trust God, to follow God, and to love and obey God.

But we also become part of a bigger family. Baptism is like the entrance into the Christian family. Everyone here, if they are Christian, become like extended family.

So this message is to everyone here: it is also your responsibility to love and care for these children. So make sure you love, protect and nurture them and their families as much as you can!

It is our responsibility to teach and train these young lives in how to live a life pleasing to God. So let us make sure that when they see us, they see us doing the right things!

It is our responsibility to support and pray for these children and their families. So make sure you do that and offer your support and kindness, and hold them in prayer.

So let us now bring these children before God as we pray for them and their families at the start of this journey.

Sermon, Luke 22:24-30: servanthood and coronations, 7 May 2023 – Reverend Glen Ruffle

Well, I received a phone call at 8.30pm yesterday asking me if I was free to help out, so apologies if this is a little ill-thought out!

There is a bumper sticker somewhere along the lines of “He who dies with the most toys, wins.”

The aim of the game of life is to acquire as many toys – a cars, partners, clothes, jewellery, money – as one can. The winner is the person who dies with the most.

On this account, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates could be the greatest. But then again, Pharaoh Khufu’s pyramid is still standing as a memorial to his power and might 4500 years after Khufu passed away, and it’s still drawing tourists to it. That’s a high mark to beat! They say if humans disappeared overnight, one of the few structures to survive the onslaught of nature would be that pyramid!

Or perhaps the answer of who is greatest is closer to home: King Charles III is said to have private wealth of some £600 million – though John of Gaunt, who lived 700 years ago and is a distant ancestor of King Charles, in modern money had a net worth of around £100 billion.

Who is the greatest? Khufu? John of Gaunt? Charles? Elon?

If you don’t have that much money, maybe you are more like the disciples of Jesus, squabbling over who they thought should be considered the greatest among them. When you don’t have money, you often use another currency to show how good you are – maybe the disciples were arguing over how many hours they spent praying, or who could preach the longest (maybe I could win that…!).

And Jesus replied “you have not understood. It’s not about being great. I have come not to be served, but to serve”.

Yesterday at the coronation of King Charles III, we saw a spectacular show of power. King Charles has the power and authority to declare war. Our brave servicemen and women are loyal to the sovereign (thankfully not the government!). And yesterday we saw the massed ranks of some of the forces that Charles can call upon. It was a display to the world that you don’t mess with Britain; you don’t mess with the King.

And in this world, where dictators invade other countries, and steal billions from their own people; where other dictators threaten nearby countries and global war; in this world, you need to be wise as serpents. Until the Kingdom of God is fully here, peace is secured for us because burly men are prepared to do violence on our behalf to keep us safe should the need arise.

The Christian church works to bring peace into this world. It is the mission of each and every one of us, if we call ourselves Christian, to try and bring peace to this world. But until the world submits to the lordship of Jesus, peace will not happen. That is why the gospel message is REPENT, turn from your ways, and follow Jesus. Obey Jesus. Only by doing that will the world find a new way of living.

And that is the great juxtaposition we saw yesterday. In the midst of the glory, pomp and power, where the world’s leaders and representatives had gathered to honour King Charles III, we had the monarch, the sovereign, the source from whom authority comes in this realm, submitting all of it to the authority of God. All the power of the world, handed over to Jesus.

The King was presented with the Bible, and told:

“to keep … ever mindful of the law and the Gospel of God as the Rule for the whole life and government of Christian Princes.”

Charles was given the Bible. He was offered it. God’s Word, offered to him, as it is offered to us:

“receive this Book, the most valuable thing that this world affords. Here is Wisdom; This is the royal Law; These are the lively Oracles of God.”

The Bible, which tells us to flee worldly wealth; to serve one another, to especially think of the poor and suffering; is not going to help anyone increase their earthly glory. It instructs us that in this life humility is the path God leads us on.

The monarch, having been pointed at the Bible, then answers this question:

“Will you…cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all your judgements?”

Yet if you use your power to cause Law, Justice and Mercy to be executed, you will deprive yourself of many opportunities for self-enrichment!

The monarch was then given a sword with the words “receive this kingly sword…a sign…of justice; not of might, but of mercy. …With (it)…do justice, stop the growth of iniquity, protect…help and defend widows and orphans…”

In the midst of the ancient Abbey, surrounded by the most powerful people on earth, Charles III was told to only fight to protect the weak, widows, and orphans.

The coronation thus shows us a new way of being King. Yes, there are palaces, grandeur, homage and lots of money. This is the ‘world’ part – it is needed as part of this corrupt and fallen world. Dictators will only pay attention to myriads of soldiers marching.

But King Charles III, at the heart of the ceremony, as the disciples were, was commissioned for a servant role by Jesus. Yes, he has power. But it is not for him. It is for the widow, orphan and victim. The coronation is a Godly contract: you, Charles, are given power and authority. But in return, you must fight all your life for the cause and welfare of those who have so little.

You, too, if you are a Christian, have been given a commission. As Charles embodies the nation, we too were in that coronation. We too are commissioned to use our power, influence, money for the benefit of the orphan, widow and victim of injustice. We are commissioned to serve.

I believe King Charles III has shown and modelled to us in his past campaigning to reduce emissions, in his construction of a town that is beautiful and well-designed, in his advocacy for sustainable farming, that he has been somewhat of a maligned prophet. That is what happens in this world. When you stand for the principles of God, you become a target for those in opposition.

We will face persecution for doing right, but we have been commissioned to go forth for our King’s King. We have been given the gospel message, calling people to repent, to stop their selfish ways and to follow the humble way of Jesus, speaking for the poor and lonely.

He that is greatest, let him be as the servant.

Let us pray for ourselves and for King Charles as we embrace this call to serve.

 

 

Sermon, 30 April 2023 With Notes: Take Heed – Living in the Light of Christ’s Return – Tessa Lang

St Mark 13:5 And Jesus answering them began to say, “Take heed lest
any man deceive you…:10 And the gospel must first be published
among all nations … :13 And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s
sake: but he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.”

Welcome to a theological portmanteau on the last day of April, when we
celebrate our patronal festival, the feast of St Mark the Evangelist. It is
also the 4th of 6 Sundays of Eastertide, inviting us to bask in the wonder
and welcome relief of the resurrection, and this year only – to anticipate
the imminent 6th May Coronation of King Charles III. Given such a
dazzling array, there is no time to waste.

How action-packed, how like St. Mark, who writes in active voice,
largely in present perfect tense, and employs the Greek word for
‘immediately’ at least 40 times in 16 fast-paced chapters, the shortest
of all the gospels. The work is also now acknowledged as the first and
earliest account of Jesus’ life, ministry, passion, and resurrection.
Though a seed-bed for St. Matthew (26 chapters) and St. Luke (24
chapters), Mark’s gospel is in high contrast to St. John (21 chapters)
where a highly structured theology informs the report of “the disciple
that Jesus loved.” Mark’s episodic narrative strings together a selection
of miracles, signs, and parables with over a third of the book focused
on his last week of life on earth. Its chronology is vague (lots of “ands”
“afters” “in those days”); its original ending may leave the reader on a
cliff edge, longing for more.

There is something about Mark that conjures art-based comparisons –
last year a Broadway musical involving a scheme to build morale and
resistance to temptation and this year, perhaps a film that depicts a
behind-the-scenes look at someone and something the film-maker
loves very much, and wants his audience to understand, as well – Mark
as the mature Spielberg or Sam Mendes perhaps.

He enters apostolic history as John Mark, appearing in the Bible as the
son of Mary Mark, a wealthy Hebrew widow of a Roman citizen (Coptic
records name him as Aristopolus Marcus) late of Cyrene in North Africa.
We meet this cosmopolitan and devout lady in a dramatic incident in
Acts 12, when Peter turns up at her front door in Jerusalem following an
angel-enabled escape from Herod’s prison; inside, many believers were
gathered to pray. The servant who answers the door leaves the fugitive
outside whilst she relays his arrival! Fortunately, Peter gains safe entry
in good time.

From this report, we understand that Mark’s mother made her evidently
large and staffed house available as a church and refuge; this puts Mark
squarely within apostolic and earliest Christian circles, most likely
involving contact with Jesus and developing a student/disciple/paternal
relationship with Peter. His home is the probable location for the Last
Supper and a teenage Mark most likely the man with a water jug who
escorts Jesus’ two trusted apostles to the Upper Room to begin
Passover preparations. Later that momentous night, he appears as an
unnamed young man who fled naked from the scene of Jesus’ arrest
when his robe was lost in the scuffle.

As you would expect, more than one image of our patronal saint is
available at St Marks, and each reflects a different aspect of his work
and character. Taken together, they instruct us in his life and theology
in a typically Marcan fashion – vivid, compelling, committed to his
stated mission to convey “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”
in emphatic style.

These accessible works of art do more than bring us into the presence
of our patronal saint; they form a gateway to other symbolic realms
present in our worship for today. You will find this expressed in the
words of special prayers compiled from a rich seam of previous Orders
of Service for the Coronation by Rev. Joanna to bless replica regalia
crafted by the children of St Mark’s. As symbols of service, advocacy,
and power, they represent the crown jewels bestowed upon the new
sovereign once he has taken the oath to uphold the law and the people,
been anointed with holy oil, and consecrated king. The form and
meaning of this treasure dates to Edgar, crowned the first Anglo-Saxon
king of Britain in 959, and also acknowledged by the Welsh and
Scottish kings. Sadly, the original items did not survive the upheaval of
the 17th century English Revolution, save for the anointing spoon. The
rest of today’s regalia dates from the Restoration of the monarchy.

Read or listen carefully to the prayers to appreciate their significance:
the Orb is set under the cross to remind the anointed king that he and
all the world are subject to God’s kingdom through Jesus Christ; the
Sceptre represents kingly power to be used with justice and mercy for
the welfare of all; the crown signifies royal majesty through God’s grace.
As Canon Charles Gore once observed, Anglican theology is best
revealed in its spoken prayer, which aspires to order and connect this
earthly kingdom to a higher realm. Enthroned between the two is the
sovereign, sworn guardian of the nations and its laws, a defender of
faith, and a reflection of God’s plan and peace to the extent of his or her
princely virtues. That is the structural position of kingship, the pattern
for beginnings and endings throughout history, a point of intersection
between time and divinity. Inhabiting the role is a very particular
individual, who can only be alive in the shared present moment that
daily challenges those of faith, of any faith, and those of none.

Let us too start with the present familiar. Behold, the figure of Mary
Mark appears on the high altar reredos with her son depicted as a
young boy who carries one of his attributes like a schoolbook, a fitting
tribute to the Christian education Mark received from his mother. The
volume represents his future Gospel, often lettered with the Pax Tibi
(Peace be with you Mark my Evangelist in full translation.) This angelic
greeting of his relics upon safe arrival from Alexandria to Venice in the
11th century demonstrates that the Evangelist was on the move in the
name of Christ, even after death.

In the centre of the stained glass rose acting as a glorious giant halo for
the ascended Christ high atop the reredos is the head of the Lion of St
Mark; his customary wings are not visible, but his green colour is
striking and perhaps invokes the hue of a Venetian lagoon. It may also
image Mark’s apocalyptic perspective of radical evil received at Peter’s
knee, as stated in 1st Peter: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your
adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he
may devour”. It is a cosmic battlefield out there, and Mark is all about
preparing and strengthening Christian troops. Visually, if Mark is
depicted with red robes, holding a red-bound book and sometimes with
red hair, then green must represent the opposite force. To Mark’s
passion and mission, evil matches its demonstrable ability to renew
itself in human behaviour and events; it is evergreen in a fallen world.

John Hayward’s design above the All-Saints chapel visualises Mark
being taught by Peter, whose curiously enlarged mouth speaks to
Mark’s disproportionate ear. Peter’s disciple takes the message to
defend the faith and the faithful to heart, and it becomes central in his
ministry and gospel. Scholars and historians from the 1st century to
contemporary theologians acknowledge Mark’s Gospel is an accurate
record of Peter’s teaching, pulsing with the lifeblood of direct testimony,
a collection of episodes in an “oral tradition” serving the needs of the
church of the day. Its pre-eminent position superseding Matthew was
not generally agreed until well into the 19th century; now 20th century
theologians such as Professor Morna Hooker assert a considered
theological backbone hides in plain sight: Jesus does not just
announce the coming of the Kingdom, he brings it as irrevocably as an
old wineskin will burst if new wine is added. The new covenant with the
living triune God is a total gamechanger, available immediately!

On the eve of St Mark’s liturgical feast day, we were treated to a live
performance of his gospel, set in Rome shortly after the trauma of
Peter’s crucifixion, under ongoing threat of violent persecution. It is
devised as a two-hander, with an anxious and grieving Mark dictating to
a Roman scribe-for-hire just doing his job until words of Jesus Christ
begin to sink in, working a transformation to conversion. Time is of the
essence. Fledgling Christians drawn from non-Jewish communities
were beset by false prophets and deceivers from within and statesponsored
oppression from without. Their continued existence
demanded a gospel to show them how to live in truth and light until
Jesus returns to usher in kingdom come. As the evangelist sifts
through his memories, the selection process favours forthright accounts
of Jesus in action, showing not telling how the Son of God delivers
redemption and new life with authority and supernatural mastery as
incarnation of the triune God.

He intentionally avoids extensive reference to Old Testament tradition
with its legalistic approach; it is for the other gospel writers to see to
that, although Mark personally had full access to Jesus in his aspect of
Hebrew Christ or Messiah as son of a Jewish mother and one of the
first battalion of 72 apostles post-crucifixion, accompanied by his older
cousin and evangelism-mentor Barnabas. He served St. Peter as
disciple, scribe, and gospel writer, and later, was also of service to St
Paul although it took many years to recover Paul’s confidence after
Mark went AWOL, returning to the comfort zone of his Jerusalem base.
Mark knew first-hand about the pain of failure and the value of second
chances and family support when “enduring until the end”.

That is some pedigree. What sort life did Mark make of it?

Let’s apply Marcan method and view for ourselves in another John
Hayward window, found above the St Mark’s Altar on the south wall of
our church. It is crowned with a golden image of St Mark’s lion, wings
present and folded, a lion gone over fully to the light! Beneath him are
two sections, like tablets, starting on the left with the distinctive
architecture of his North African birthplace and childhood in Jerusalem,
faint outlines of a presiding maternal figure and a running boy who has
lost his clothes. Instruction during youth with St. Peter takes centre
stage (note the way Hayward identifies Mark with red hair, boy and
man, and ultimately, with red wounds). Later, he ministers to the apostle
when he stayed in Mamartine Prison awaiting gruesome crucifixion.
This vignette also puts us in mind of Mark’s subsequent work for St
Paul, incarcerated for the second and final time in the same grim prison
prior to execution during the persecutions of Nero. (A Roman citizen,
Paul would not have been crucified.) The right-hand section depicts the
winding path of evangelism, followed by a sacred ministry as leader in
the early church and first bishop of Alexandria, ending in a gruesome
martyr’s death after two days of public torture.

Perhaps on subsequent Patronal Feasts, I can paint St Mark’s gospel’s
theological portrait … from its blockbuster first 13 verses of prologue
that take us from Jesus’ sudden eruption into history by the Jordan to
temptation in the wilderness…its 22 miracles and signs, 10 parables of
which 3 are unique…the ministry and passion in Jerusalem…abiding
themes and structure. For now, I will fast forward to its end, chapter 16:
1 – 8, where the original manuscript ends in the empty tomb.

The stone has been rolled away by the time the women arrive, the body
has vanished and, in its place, sits an angel who confirms that Jesus of
Nazareth has indeed risen. In the penultimate verse he says: “But go
your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into
Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.”

Direct, brief, just the facts, ma’m. You’re good to go. Then the final
verse tolls, the human reaction to the horror, grief and awe experienced
over barely 3 days when only the women remained on the scene as
witness and to minister as best they could. They could not yet do
anything for they were afraid. Here is the very essence of human
suffering: to possess good news and dazzling prospects yet struggle to
connect with them. For the experience of connection marks both the
point of departure and the finish line. Mark dramatises this principle; it
shapes the coronation ceremony and T S Eliot expresses it this way:

Little Gidding, Part V. from T S Eliot’s “The Four Quartets”

We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this
Calling

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

In a few days’ time, the machinery and memory of church and state
meets at that point, the core of our most profound heritage, where we
find one who is neither English nor British but a Palestinian infant from a
young migrant family displaced by political oppression; in adult life, he
was condemned as a convicted criminal and put to death — Jesus of
Nazareth.

Today, and on Coronation Day, we can celebrate our fellowship in the
Church of England. We claim what we can love about this heritage. Let
us rejoice, always confessing our sins. Let us abide with the king of all
who calls us to love one another as he loves us and be fruitful to the
glory of God. Long may our beginnings and endings connect us through
his grace.

Alleluia. Amen. And God Save the King.

Sermon, Easter III, (Coronation Series II) Sunday 24 April 2023 – the Vicar

We are continuing a study of the Coronation rite. Last week we covered the early part of the service.

This week we shall explore three things:

  1. The reality that this rite takes place within a Eucharist, which connects nicely with today’s Gospel passage about the Road to Emmaus.
  2. Secondly we shall look at the readings.
  3. After that, at the very heart of the rite – the anointing takes place, and I want to unpack that and the crowning.

What does our Eucharistic prayer pray?

It is very meet right and our bounden duty that we should at all times and in all places give thanks.

What does Jesus do when he meets his confused disciples on that first Easter day at evening on the road to Emmaus? He takes bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it. The fourfold act of thanksgiving is seen here in the instant before Jesus vanishes. The Eucharist, this action for all times and in all places, is the crowning celebration of our Christian life. It is how we know Jesus, and how he comes to make his home in us. It is not surprising that a Christian action of supreme significance should be situated with the Eucharist. I have been making something of a study of the Coronation rite and it developed from the early 8th c, with more ancient precedent still, and what its compilers were reaching for was ordination. A special sort of ordination, but an ordination nevertheless. And just as deacons, priests and Bishops were consecrated within Eucharistic celebrations it was perfectly natural that Kings should be too.

We are sure that the King’s personal preference for the use of the 1662 Prayer Book will mean that it has the same cadences as the rite we use here.

There are two readings which follow. Normally they are read by the two Bishops who carry in the chalice and patten during the procession of the regalia at the start. Incidentally they are both made of solid gold, and along with most of the rest of the regalia were all made from scratch in 1661, after Oliver Cromwell broke up, melted down or sold off the contents of the Jewel House in 1649. We’ll discover more about the regalia next week.

The readings are rather unusual. The first reading has been read at every coronation from the Coronation of Edward III, I Peter 2: 13-19. The tone of this reading, alongside Matthew’s account of Jesus’s injunction to “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”, reads strangely today. Hearing this apparent double-whammy of requirement to submit to temporal rule might seem coercive in the modern age.

First, we might need to underline that these two New Testament texts issue from a time fraught with primitive Christian suffering and persecution. Peter and Matthew were victims themselves of the savage treatment of leading Christians in the first century. These readings are more subtle than a quiescent acceptance of the validity of secular authority, come what may.

They seem to share an underlying grasp that Jesus’s call to Render to Caesar, has more than a dose of irony implied in it. There have been scholars who have proposed that Jesus was linked, through the surnames of two of the Twelve, with first century anti-Roman insurgency. Judas Iscariot may have been one of the notorious sicarii – first century brigands, known for their indiscriminate knife attacks. Simon the Zealot was almost certainly connected with another brand of active freedom-fighting. How far we can suggest Jesus was directly associated with either terrorist cell, when his message of peace and non-violence characterised his ministry (and note particularly Jesus’s arrest), is hard to say, but there was ferment on every front at the time of Our Lord’s ministry.

We know that a Roman denarius in the first century bore the Latin inscription Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti Filius Augustus Pontifex Maximus (Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest).

In Matthew’s account, Jesus is goaded by the Herodians to declare either for the freedom movement generally, or the loathed status quo of cooperation with the Romans. In answer, Jesus does not declare as particularly cooperative with Rome. Matthew may have been more interested in Jesus’s adroitness in avoiding being trapped by his hostile questioners. The Gospel writers’ aim is to underline most firmly that Jesus’s challenge is to concentrate properly on the things of God, rather than anything of Caesar’s.

You might be pleased to hear as the clock is about to ring 11 am, that at the Coronation there has not been a sermon since 1902! In the ancient manuals there is a rubric – a short sermon is preached. These are long services, and there is not much getting away from that.

Where the sermon might have been, we move into the ritualised parts of the proceedings.

Just as at this point in the 8th c. AD a Bishop would then be clothed specially and ordained, so issues to do with vesture, anointing and investiture come to the fore.

So, the king will then divest himself of his rich crimson outer robes.

We are witnessing a death.

Just as in baptism the candidate wears white – the symbol of purity and new life, so the king’s outer garments will reveal probably a loose linen shirt openable at the top. A canopy will be brought forward, possibly one held by children, there has been talk there may be pupils from Christ’s Hospital in their paupers’ uniform of yellow stockings and long blue frockcoats. Whichever way, the anointing is shielded from view. One person I interviewed for the podcast I have done suggested that in the televisual age not to film something was as bold a statement as it might be possible to make.

I have made comments perhaps already about the anointing oil, but given the intensity of events in Jerusalem it bears repeating.

The Mt of Olives in Jerusalem sits opposite the Temple Mount, the place of the Dome of the Rock. Jesus rose to heaven from there, according to most of the NT accounts. Looking from the central part of the Jerusalem Temple to the rising sun at morning, the Mt of Olives is utterly in shade with the sun behind it. It is a magical site. The prophet Ezekiel sees the glory of God leaving the Temple and its first place of rest is over the Mt of Olives. The later prophet Zechariah sees further cataclysms, and the Mt of Olives cut in half and a place of rescue for the faithful that pass through it. The southerly slope of the ridge is covered in Jewish graves, the most sought after place to be buried, because of the beliefs associated with the end of the age. The ridge itself is quite simply breath-takingly beautiful. Part of Jerusalem’s pain is its exquisite majesty.

Ten measures of beauty gave God to the world, nine to Jerusalem and one to the remainder. Ten measures of sorrow gave God to the world, nine to Jerusalem and one to the remainder.

The oil to be used in 2023 was from olives harvested on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem, which is part of the Garden of Gethsemane. The link with Our Lord’s Passion is of singular character. In the same tranquil garden are buried in the Russian Monastery of St Mary Magdalene, two Orthodox religious. St Elizabeth of Russia, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and sister of the last Tsarina of Russia, and Elizabeth’s niece and goddaughter, Princess Alice of Battenburg and Greece, our King’s grandmother. Both women were brave and remarkable and are remembered for their courage and their reward is to rest in a place of the greatest sanctity. The French kings have a tradition that when Clovis was converted in 496, Oil from Heaven was passed down to be used in perpetuity. It was preserved in the Sainte Ampoule. Much later on a tradition arose that the BVM gave oil to Thomas Becket, while in exile in Sens. This oil was kept in an ampulla, where it got forgotten. Richard II discovered it and used it as a talisman in battle. It was then used for four coronations. Thereafter at different intervals the Oil has been prepared and mixed. There are differing recipes. All of them include balsam a rich aromatic fragrance, which was famously expensive – the balm in Gilead.

This Oil, which, as you know, we use following baptism, symbolises the descent of the Holy Spirit to each of us. It is a personal Pentecost and it effects a change. It is sacramental. This is why the coronation is such an unusual rite. There were many reasons for the reformers to do away with it in the 16th c, and the Papacy was pretty keen it should cease to be used in the 13th. The German Protestant Georges only kept it in use because of Handel’s remarkable music to accompany it. They had none of that sort of nonsense in Hanover.

The blessing by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, the direct successor to the James the brother of the Lord, and a Bishop of the faith of the King’s grandmother and her aunt and of his course his own father, was a profoundly new departure ecumenically.

Patriarch Theophilus’s willingness to undertake this, with his Palestinian colleague Archbishop Hosam, in the city David made his capital and in which Solomon built the Temple, the site of which is now a most holy Muslim site, causes this aromatic oil to hold within it the beauty and pain of that aching place of so many of our hopes and aspirations. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem the Psalmist says and the choir will sing as part of Parry’s I was glad. Praying for peace, when such a prayer seems impossible is what Christian hope has at its heart.

The King’s crowning, which follows soon after the anointing, is the outward and visible sign of the inward and invisible truth of this personal Pentecost. The crown, while a sign of Kingship, holds within it symbolism of priesthood from the Old Testament as well, and the Crown of Thorns with which Our Lord was crowned.

Come back next week for the next thrilling instalment.

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon, Easter II, (Coronation Series I) Low Sunday 16 April 2023 – the Vicar

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you.” I Peter 1: 3.

This promise encapsulates rather beautifully the hope of Easter.

St Peter continues:

Now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations: That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ.

On the one hand the suffering in imitation of Christ of the Christian martyrs – who have been purged like gold in the fire, is brought to mind in this reading, and in today’s Gospel, with the various greetings of Peace by the risen Christ, we are called to think about the gift of Peace.

The references to both gold and peace are springboards to discussion of the Coronation.

I thought over the next four Sundays, the three before and the one after the Coronation, we might look at the Coronation Rite. It is quite long, in some ways quite dense, but very special.

The service has 17 episodes, and within each one we find various processions, gestures and actions.

I hope it will be helpful to go through each to make Christian sense of what could be a right Royal pageant, but in fact is something far richer and more mysterious. I use that word with care because the Greek word mysterion is translated as sacrament, and for several hundred years from about 1000 AD there was those that viewed the Coronation rite as the 8th sacrament.

Just very briefly, this will be the shape of the four studies we shall do:

  1. The first part of the service which includes the Introit, Recognition, Oath and gift of the Bible. I will also look at the architectural context of the service, in the Abbey, and the design of the building.
  2. The beginning of the Eucharist proper, and the readings used. We will also begin to look at issues of anointing and coronation and the vesture worn.
  3. The Sunday before the service is our Patronal festival and our preacher will make reference to St Mark our Patron, and explore issues of Kingship and the regalia in terms in which we find them in his Gospel. We will use extended prayers of blessing, which were commended in 1953 and which tell of the symbolism of the regalia – this reminds us that material things speak of spiritual realities.
  4. The day after the Coronation, as we celebrate this rite, there will be an overview of what has taken place and what it might mean for our generation.

Henry III redesigned the Abbey, which sat more or less on the foundations of the Edward the Confessor’s church, which was finished in 1065. By then the Confessor had been canonised, and his royal tomb was rebuilt as an ornate shrine of a saint. The High Altar of the Abbey, the Tomb which sat behind it, the pavement before it and even Henry III’s tomb, were covered in 1268 in the most ornate and beautiful Cosmatesque mosaic.

The intricacy of the work and the quality and variety of the stones and materials used, all combine to suggest the connection between Westminster Abbey, Rome (the Abbey Church’s dedication to St Peter is part of this), and the place of Coronation, before the Shrine of St Edward. The central roundel of the swirling design is central point of the cosmos – here it is the King is anointed and crowned. Allusions to the Temple in Jerusalem compound intensify the symbolism further, and are designed to leave the faithful speechless before this work of wonder.

In the Abbey, the sovereign takes his place successively on three chairs in order. Their chair of estate, their place for the beginning of the rite. The Coronation Chair, which while grand is not really a throne, its origins are that of a bench, where now the anointing and crowning take place. This sits right in the middle of the pavement – where in the design heaven and earth meet. The final chair is the actual throne which sits between the transepts in what has always been called “The Theatre”. Theatre – less in the sense of drama and more a place to be seen, where actions happen. Henry III designed the abbey to have tiered seating, and the throne itself to be as high as 13 feet, so the lower tiers and the throne itself were almost at the same level. There is something of heaven and earth meeting once again at the enthronisation, about which I will say more on another occasion.

So much for the context of the Coronation rite.

What about the first three key episodes.

Just before the King arrives the choir will sing the Litany, which we sing here on the first Sundays of Advent and Lent. This long prayer of is a reminiscent of early Christian invocatory prayers. The one we use by Tallis is the composition of a life-long Catholic whose career in the Chapel Royal spanned the reigns of Henry VIII to Elizabeth I. It is hard to avoid hyperbole in relation to Tallis but he was a musical great, alongside whom the younger William Byrd would also excel. To some extent they are grandparents of the English choral tradition. They effect the transition of choral singing from its Latin pre-Reformation origins to the modern age. Arguably the Cathedral tradition of music making was one of the keenest brakes on whole-sale Reform in England, and thank God for that.

This is a nice segway into what comes next, the actual Introit, words from Psalm 122 I was glad when they said unto me. The words have been used as the Introit from 973 AD. They are the words of any pilgrim travelling up to Jerusalem. Parry set them to music in 1902 for Edward VII and they have been used ever after. The service begins with a crescendo, which seems hard to beat, and within that are the shouts of the scholars of Westminster School Vivat Rex Carolus. A blend of old and new, singing and shouting, praise and acclamation.

It is followed by an echo from Saxon precedent. The King stands forward of the altar on the Gospel candle side, as the Archbishop and the Great Officers of State go to the four corners of the compass in the Coronation Theatre to acclaim “Your undoubted King.” The onlookers reply “God save the King!” Saxon dynasties which had no primogeniture, this was the Accession Council, here that precedent is remembered. The King is reminded that his rule is of the people. The English tradition has always been wary of notions of divine right.

This is then underlined as the King takes his place in his Chair of Estate to have administered (once again by the Archbishop) the oath.

There are those who compare coronations to weddings, there is certainly a ring to be worn in due course, but like any solemn undertaking, and this is really more parallel to an ordination, the candidate must make that undertaking.

Sir, is your Majesty willing to take the Oath?

I am willing.

The Archbishop shall minister these questions; and The King, having a book in his hands, shall answer each question severally as follows:

Archbishop. Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the Peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and of your Possessions and the other Territories to any of them belonging or pertaining, according to their respective laws and customs?

King. I solemnly promise so to do.

Archbishop. Will you to your power cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all your judgements?

King. I will.

Archbishop. Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law? Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England? And will you preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them?

King. All this I promise to do.

Then the King arising out of his Chair, supported as before, the Sword of State being carried before him, shall go to the Altar, and make his solemn Oath in the sight of all the people to observe the premisses: laying his right hand upon the Holy Gospel in the great Bible (which was before carried in the procession and is now brought from the Altar by the Arch-bishop, and tendered to him as he kneels upon the steps), and saying these words:

The things which I have here before promised, I will perform and keep. So help me God.

Then the King shall kiss the Book and sign the Oath.

Politically, the wording of the Coronation Oath dates from the Coronation Oath Act of 1688, following the so-called Glorious Revolution at the end of the reign of James II.

The Coronation Oath was supplemented by the Accession Oath under the 1689 Bill of Rights Act, whose tone underlined the principles of the new regime. The 1689 Bill of Rights Act required the sovereign, to begin with at the Coronation and then later on accession, to swear that:

[I] do solemnly and sincerely in the presence of God, profess, testify, and declare, that I do believe that in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper there is not any Transubstantiation of the elements of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ at or after the consecration thereof by any person whatsoever…..

In 1910 this Oath was amended. King George V, and his father before him, felt very strongly that such incendiary anti-Catholic rhetoric risked utterly alienating their Roman Catholic subjects, at a time of heightened unrest in Ireland.

The amendment was considerably tempered and now reads:

I [here insert the name of the Sovereign] do solemnly and sincerely in the presence of God profess, testify, and declare that I am a faithful Protestant, and that I will, according to the true intent of the enactments which secure the Protestant succession to the Throne of my Realm, uphold and maintain the said enactments to the best of my powers according to law.

The Coronation Oath, therefore, has been a loaded text. Behind it is a history of vehement opposition to Kingship beholden to external power and Roman Catholic doctrine. This ecumenical age sees the coming together of peoples of faith, and a mutuality amongst Christians, in social action and witness, which the King’s role as Defensor Fidei stands for in a unique way.

Queen Elizabeth II said of the Church of England, in a speech in February 2012 at Lambeth Palace:

Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country. It certainly provides an identity and spiritual dimension for its own many adherents. But also, gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely. Woven into the fabric of this country, the Church has helped to build a better society – more and more in active co-operation for the common good with those of other faiths.

In 1953, there was then (shock-horror) an innovation at the Coronation.

For the first time, someone who was not a prelate of the Church of England got a solo-speaking part. The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, got to hand the Bible to the Queen. Previously the Bible was presented after the Coronation and before the Coronation blessing. In 1953 it was decided, logically, it would be presented before the collect and readings.

There was a considerable discussion about this, and even a fair amount of hoity-toitiness. Archbishop Fisher began by saying the Moderator could hand the Bible, while remaining mute. Fisher perhaps afraid Celtic tones might spoil the uniformity of voice began obdurately to refuse the Moderator a speaking part, but he eventually stood down, and actually allowed the Moderator the simple and wonderful words, distilled from Bishop Compton’s rather longer original in 1689:

Here is Wisdom; (Rev 13: 8; Proverbs, constant search after Wisdom)
This is the royal Law; (James 2:8)
These are the lively Oracles of God. (I Peter 4: 11)

This innovation in 1953 was quite something then. It was clear it was only because of the monarch’s particular direct relationship with the Kirk, as we all saw at the Accession Council. There was firmness on the part of Fisher there was no warrant for other Church leaders either to be present or have any sort of role – it was not their service!

But the memory of that innovation has spelt a desire, openness and active interest in giving space not only to other Church leaders, but other faith communities and their clergy at this Coronation in 2023. So, something so distinctively Christian as the gift of our Scriptures has spelt the opportunity in a very different society now, for leaders of other faiths to be present at this Coronation.

The King’s particular interest in the related questions of Freedom of Religion, Interfaith Dialogue, and support for all people of faith, mean, it is clear he celebrates other faiths being represented, while not diluting his own very strong and deep faith. The day the date was announced, an invitation was issued to the Chief Rabbi to stay at Clarence House so he would be able to walk to the Abbey to be able to attend the Coronation.

Come back next week for the next thrilling instalment.

As we ponder the purging of the Church as gold is tested in the fire, spare prayers for the King and Queen in their self-offering. This is no easy task to which they are called and about which they have so little choice, other than to renounce, not easy either. Let us pray that we may know the gift of ultimate peace, shalom, the peace of the age and kingdom to come, which the risen Christ offers to those who follow him in faith.

 

Sermon, Maundy Thursday, 6th April 2023 – Ros Miskin

May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit

In our Order of Service here at St Mark’s we are invited to ‘draw near with faith’.  In faith to put aside our worldly concerns and focus on our relationship with God.

On this Maundy Thursday, when we reflect upon the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his disciples, we learn that they too are invited by Jesus to ‘draw near with faith’.  At that particular moment it meant to gather around Jesus to share his body and blood in the bread and wine. Here, nearness reaches its zenith.

This ultimate nearness is attacked by Satan who imitates God in terrible ways. The aim is to destroy Jesus, who has rejected his offer of power and possessions, and what better way to imitate than entering Judas so that Judas will betray Jesus. This nearness prompts Judas into betrayal but, unlike his disciples, Jesus knows what is going on and knows that it is ‘to fulfil the scripture’.  He knows that his death is coming but ‘the Son of Man has been glorified and God has been glorified in him’.

Satan, then, does not win the day. What prompts his demonic deeds?  Across the centuries scholars and theologians have given a varied response.  My preference is for the view of the 13th century scholastic theologian, Thomas Aquinas who held that Satan was once probably the very highest angel who, through pride, fell immediately after Creation, seducing people to follow him.  Can you imagine the agony of having been very close to God and then remote from him?  As they disobeyed God, pain and hardship were also the fate of Adam and Eve but we know that God, through his son Jesus, has reconciled this fall from grace which allows us to ‘draw near with faith’.  As the Book of Revelation expresses it: ‘the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, has been conquered by the blood of the lamb’.  All is well then.  As St Paul  wrote in his letter to the Ephesians: ‘you who were afar have been brought near by the blood of Christ’.

If the disciples, and we ourselves, wish to stay near to God then it only requires one commandment to be kept.  As John’s Gospel gives it: ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another’.  An expression of this love is to welcome all peoples. Welcome unites us and helps us to help each other. This is a strong theme in the Jewish Passover at which there is always a space for the stranger.  Today marks the beginning of the Christian understanding of Passover, which reminds us of the Jewish idea of escape from slavery.  In the current debate on immigration rules, we need to keep this in mind.  Particularly now, on Maundy Thursday, which is also known as ‘the Day of the Reconciliation of the Penitents’ when sinners were welcomed back on this day.

So let us, on this Maundy Thursday, renew our commitment to God by drawing near in faith, being the welcoming presence, and demonstrating love for one another as God loves us.

 

AMEN

 

Sermon, 19th February 2023 Quinquagesima & Transfiguration – Tessa Lang

From today’s reading of the Gospel of St Matthew, 17: v5
While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and
behold a voice out of the cloud which said,
This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.
And 2 Peter 1: v19
19 We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well
that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the
day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts.

May I speak in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Amen.
A year ago we met at the same mountain on the same day – the last
Sunday before Ash Wednesday. Now as then, we are buffeted by
extreme politics and conflict, by natural disasters and self-induced
climate change. Uncertainty and inequality shred our social contract and
too few birds sing. Now as then, we find community, meaning, and
pastry in this beautiful and beloved place. Surely there is no better time
to open our hearts to today’s gospel, an exquisite and sufficient
illumination of our Christian faith and heritage: past, present, future,
eternal.

All three synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke –report the event:
it is important that Christians know and remember this story. But what
about John? After all, he was one of the three eyewitnesses. Is he silent
about the Transfiguration?

On the contrary, I believe we can read the Prologue from St. John as a
glorious poem of transfiguration, from “in the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God”; including “In
him was life, and the life was the light of mankind”; and conclusively,
“The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his
glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and
truth.” As such, John’s passage is no less a powerful testimony due to
its lyrical and figurative expression. His words speak to the eternal truth
at the heart of the story and shine as brightly as Matthew’s vivid report or
glowing icons that seek to recreate theological narrative as seen
experience.

Like the three apostles on the mountain and as featured in our spotlight
verse introducing this sermon, we learn truth and grow in faith through
our senses and within our hearts…when we listen to and heed their
message. We are wired by a loving God to long for and turn to the light
of salvation, and to hear the living God speak through his word.
Otherwise, we are incapable of improvement. Paradoxically, Jesus is
not the one who undergoes metamorphosis atop the Mount of
Transfiguration: he is ever and always fully God and fully human. It is
our eyes and ears and hearts that must be transfigured and opened to
behold him, both in his majesty and as the sacrificial lamb of our
salvation.

That is the aim of the stunning and intricate icon on the cover of the
Order of Service, particularly as reproduced in full colour on this week’s
parish e-mail. Painted by a 14th century priest and poet, Theophanes,
the composition moves the eye through time, place, and
event…simultaneously inhabiting metaphysical and physical realms: it is
literally a sermon in paint.

An image of the Transfiguration also appears on the central panel of the
reredos, itself a degree programme in theology. Here Christ is joined by
Moses and Elijah in a supernatural gathering before three awe-struck
apostles. This image shines forth behind the high altar every day of the
year…except when concealed during Lent, now looming. It is good to
give it some attention before the beauty of our sanctuary is veiled for the
duration; perhaps it will be food for contemplation of our shared
experience of the transfiguration, available and active within us even
when removed from sight.

One year ago, St. Luke was our guide to the mountain top; this year St.
Matthew leads the way for our bi-annual Transfiguration retreat. Though
its official Feast Day is 6 August, closer to the historical real time the
biblical event takes place, the Transfiguration is twinned with the last
Sunday of Shrovetide – today – about 6 months earlier in the calendar
year, on the cusp of Lent, and some 50 days before Easter Day. Its
position on the liturgical calendar gives rise to the name –
Quinquagesima or literally ‘fifty days’ in that language so excellent for
sequence, Latin. It also ensures that each half of the calendar year
includes a day to bask in transfiguration glory, which radiates blessing
for all. Not least because it is day 1 of a 3-day final countdown of pre-
Lenten indulgences, should your larder be fortunate to hold stocks of
any foods or treats you now plan to restrict during 40 days of fasting and
penitence in preparation for Holy Week, Passion and Resurrection.
For those with maths brains calculating how to divide 40 fast days into a
50-day period culminating in the Paschal Feast, and for others with keen
appetites and high anxiety, rest assured that all goodies are welcomed
back on Sundays, as they have been on an occasional Thursday or
Saturday when different rules regarding pre-Paschal fasting have come
into and gone out of practice. These days, media outlets and best seller
lists are populated with the benefits of an extended period of intermittent
fasting or “going dry” on usual indulgences, from meat to merlot,
together with structured self-examination – which could be likened to
journaling or mindfulness or self-help. Lenten discipline is not an
attempt to drag you back to the Middle Ages, but to engage you with
healing and drawing closer to your true self by moving closer to the God
in whose image you were made.

As a prospective Lenten pilgrim, welcome to Quinquagesima Sunday
2023 when thoughts of pancakes, butter and cream; meat and cheese;
sugar and alcohol, may be permitted to dance in our heads, so long as
you have packed your metaphorical knapsack and renewed your faith in
the gospel roadmap for God’s plan.

Let’s start at the bottom of that high mountain. On second thought, let’s
start at the end of the previous chapter of Matthew, remembering that
time points to meaning from Genesis 1:1 to Revelations 22:21. In its
closing verses (not really a cheat as the division of text post-dates its
writing plus Mark includes it within his account), Peter “confesses” for
the first time that Jesus is “the Christ, the son of the living God.” In
reply, Jesus tells the apostles for the first time that he must die and be
raised again on the third day. This is a contravention of the one-anddone
Messiah favoured by first century Judaism as the God and king
who comes in triumph to restore the temporal power of the Hebrew
people.

There are passages in the psalms and Zechariah that describe
crucifixion hundreds of years before Jesus appears, plus Isiah’s wellknown
depiction of Messiah as the Suffering Servant who bears the
disease and punishments for Israel’s sins. However, this aspect of
messianic function isn’t in the foreground; equally, a promise to rise
again elicits scant acknowledgment from Jesus’ disappointed disciples.
Rebuffing Peter’s indignant protest against a suffering and slain
Messiah, Jesus further promises “verily” that some of those present will
not die “till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom”. Soon
enough, seeing will be believing, at least for some.

The very first line of the following verse picks up this timeline, setting the
Transfiguration “after 6 days” when Jesus calls Peter and the brothers
James and John to come with him up into a high mountain. Here are
echoes of the Genesis creation account, where on the 6th day, God
made man and woman in his own image. Yet the process was not
complete until the 7th day, when he “blessed and sanc

The rest of the disciples are left at the bottom of the mountain, and later
in the chapter you may read Jesus’ review of how well their time was
spent! Of course, he knew that all his disciples were truly stuck in 6th
day limbo, and it was time to breathe life into their faith, starting with his
top team. He would combine all that was familiar to them about the Law
and the Prophets, the Messiah and the Kingdom into one unforgettable
experience of his godhood within the triune godhead. It will embody and
illuminate the Cross, the Resurrection, and the glory of God’s Kingdom
as perfect and inevitable fulfilment of divine plan to redeem creation from
its fallen imperfection. No wonder it is a story told twice each year! We
could benefit from remembering it every day.

Location, like time, signifies meaning throughout the Bible, and high
mountains are where God interacts with his messengers on earth, the
prophets. Other signifiers include light and dark; natural phenomena
such as cloud and waters; physical manifestations such as voice, fire,
and wind; appearance of otherworldly beings or those from the past or
future –something from all categories appears in the Transfiguration
narrative and many feature in Theophanes’ icon.

Front and centre is the pure white light of Christ in full glory, a white that
outshines the glimmering gold of the highest heavens. Its beams create
a star-like structure of radiance connecting above to below with precise
geometry. His right hand is raised in blessing, two fingers aloft and
three together symbolising the trinity. A cloud tinted celestial blue
descends, approaching Christ like a wing-shaped embrace as symbol of
God the father’s presence; it also serves as protective shield for the
apostles. We can now visualise the mystical unity of divinity, with Jesus
Christ at its centre: as perfect sacrifice, great High Priest, and
indestructible Temple for the children of God below; as only Son to the
Father above; as the one who sends the Holy Spirit to comfort, protect,
and give life.

The lower slopes and the apostles themselves are shaded and earthtoned,
deeper on the left side to represent the past and ascent of the
mount, brighter on the right side to light their descent after witnessing
Jesus’ radiance before travelling into the future. Darkest are small cavelike
openings into the mountain, the larger ones to the side like tunnels
through the mountain, the smaller central ones foreshadowing the
passion in Gethsemane Garden and the empty tomb.

The men themselves do not reach the summit and appear overwhelmed
with exhaustion and awe, perhaps just waking from end-of- journey
sleep well below the level of their transfigured Lord’s feet. Standing to
the left is the prophet Elijah, taken into the heavens some 800 years
ago, and to the right, patriarch Moses, the lawgiver resting in a burial
place known only to God almighty these past 1500 years. Both are
instantly recognisable as they bow to the Lord, attended by angelic
beings on a small cloud floating above them, dim in comparison to the
shekinah of God’s presence. Neither eminence is a stranger to
mountain top summits with the Almighty, and Elijah is foretold to appear
just before the coming of the Messiah.

Though John averts his eyes and brother James covers his, Peter raises
head and hand in emphasis, for he has something to say! To him, the
scene looks like Jesus appearing in glory, attended by Elijah as foretold,
accompanied by Moses, occurring at the time of Sukkot when Israel
commemorates 40 years in the desert on the way to the Promised Land.
Why, this is a perfect opportunity for the Messiah to appear in majesty
during a high holiday without the need for suffering and death. “Tis
good, Lord, to be here”! Let us build 3 tabernacles, (tents or temporary
structures) one for each of you…effectively, let’s bring the Kingdom
home right here, right now.

He is interrupted before he can finish as the cloud overshadows them
and the voice of God speaks from its depths:
“This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased: hear ye him.
The cloud vanishes, Jesus appears on his own in his familiar form, and
there is nothing to do but arise and go with him down the mountain,
across the plains, to the appointed time of Calvary. Further, to heed his
words to fear not and to say nothing about what you have seen and
heard until the resurrection. For the Son of God is the eternal
embodiment of prophecy AND the new Moses, sent to lead people
everywhere out of the slavery of sin, according to his Father’s plan.
For us today as it was over 2000 years ago for Peter, James and John,
spiritual rebirth is sorely needed. In the Transfiguration, Jesus takes us
to that place where we are again connected to the sight, voice, love, and
certain knowledge of the ever-loving triune God. After all, it is good for
us to be here. AMEN

Sermon, 26 February 2023, Lent I – Ros Miskin

Today is the first Sunday in Lent.  In my sermon today I am going to explore the meaning of Lent.

The first thought that comes into my head is that Lent is a time when we feel we should give something up that we like and in that period to resist the temptation to return to it.  Many a time and oft I have tried to give up eating chocolate but not very successfully.

This attempt to give up something we like appears to be superficial in comparison with what find in today’s Gospel reading.  Here, Jesus resists the offer made to him by the Devil to have ‘all the kingdoms of the world, and their splendor’ because he will not worship any other than God himself.  I would hesitate, though, to dismiss our attempts during Lent to give up something we like as superficial. It is, I believe, a mistake to be too grandiose about what we do in our ordinary lives and God is, I believe, the God of ordinariness. I say all this because such attempts can reflect what is going on at a deeper level and not everyone has the time to engage in profound thought and reflection about what they do, particularly in today’s non-stop 24/7 busy world.

In days gone by, when the pace of life was slower, this gave more opportunity for engagement in reflection on our deeper level of being.  So to explore the meaning of Lent at that deeper level we can look at the writings of those who in the past had that opportunity for profound thought and reflection.

One such was Thomas à Kempis, the German-Dutch canon and author who, in the fifteenth century, wrote his famous work ‘the Imitation of Christ’, Thomas wrote that good Lenten practice means to resist the attempts of the Devil to turn you away from ‘exercise of devotion, reverence for the saints, remembrance of your sins, vigilance over your own heart and your ‘resolve to make progress in goodness’.  A tall order, particularly for us in today’s world.  Yet when we worship today we do ask for God’s mercy and forgiveness and many people all over the world are striving for a better state of affairs for everyone.

What Thomas is asking us to avoid is being distracted by the Devil. What makes all this harder for us today is that we are constantly distracted by a bombardment of offers and rewards from companies and organizations. I am not quite sure whether they are kindly meant or purely commercial and I think it may be a mixture of both; some for our health and welfare, or to help us in the cost of living, or enjoyment, all with good intention, others simply to make money out of us.  If, though, we can shift away, not from enjoyment of what life has to offer us, but from excess then I believe we are on the path that Thomas would like us to be on in relationship to God.  It is one which by-passes the Devil’s path of restlessness and disturbing of the good state of our desires and allows space for prayer and Bible study.

If we can stand firm against the wiles of the Devil then we imitate Christ as he stood firm in the wilderness.  His was a mighty resistance as an offer of kingdoms and wealth after 40 days and nights in the wilderness must surely have been a massive temptation.  This ultimate resistance gives us a model for our attempts to shift away from temptation in Lent.

The deeper meaning of Lent is also found in the activity of the Holy Spirit.  In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. In Mark’s Gospel there is an urgency; Jesus is driven by the Spirit, immediately, into the wilderness.  What does this mean?  According to Reverend Harry Williams, priest and theologian, in his sermon given at Trinity College Cambridge in 1965, the Spirit is ’God in us’.  It is from that place that we can be, as Jesus was, thrown out into the wilderness as part of our call to God’s service.  This leaves us isolated but in that isolation we are losing shallow communion with God ‘and new powers of communion with our world are being built up within us’.  Isolation does not necessarily mean being alone in the desert as it can take many forms; it is, Harry writes, a sense of being alone, saddeningly alone or alone and frightened. Isolated from friends or family or from those who you feel have achieved success that you have not achieved.  For Jesus it was isolation in the actual wilderness but I would say that, in spite of loving parents and some acceptance and praise of others, he was isolated from cradle to grave because of his unique destiny. Yet the time spent by Jesus in the wilderness in isolation shows us what happens to ourselves.  We see in his life the meaning of our own.

In his resistance to the Devil in the wilderness, Jesus shows himself to be, as Jerome’s Biblical Commentary gives it ‘the perfect lover of God’.  We may not feel that we can reach that height of perfection but the author of Psalm 32 reminds us that if we confess to God then God forgives us as our protector and deliverer whose steadfast love surrounds us always.

 

AMEN

 

Sermon, Septuagesima, 5 February 2023 – Reverend Glen Ruffle

Our gospel reading today comes from the Sermon on the Mount, a foundational text of teaching for what it means to live life as a Christian. The verses we heard today break into three sections: First, the importance of Salt and Light; Second, the Law and the Prophets; and Third, our expected level of righteousness.

I’m actually going to work through this back to front, so bear with me!

Exceed the Pharisees!

At the end of the reading, Jesus says “…unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom…” of God. This is the baseline for disciples. The scribes and pharisees were the ones criticising and opposing the first Christians. Jesus marks them out, and says “These are your targets. If you can be more loving, more generous, and better people than these, then you are going to enter the kingdom of God”.

Dare I say it, the bar is actually set quite low!

“Righteousness” is one of those church words that we all hear but don’t necessarily understand. In Matthew’s gospel, it basically means “doing things rightly”. If you can do the right things more than the pharisees, then you are doing well!

But what are the right things?

The Old Testament today

Moving up, we have a discussion on the Law and the Prophets. For us, this means the Old Testament. What exactly is the point of the Old Testament? Just an historic document? Just background information? Or is there a relevance? Very often we don’t read it, we skip over it – indeed today I chose the New Testament reading over the Old!

Bad me! Because in Matthew’s mind, and at the time Matthew was writing, the only Holy Scriptures anyone had, the only source of guidance, was the Old Testament!  He thus fully assumed that every single Christian would be studying the Old Testament in a group of people to understand it.

Sadly, this is very much not what we do today. But when I was in Moscow, I visited a synagogue once, and it amazed me to see Jewish men after the service sitting at tables opposite one another, reading the Old Testament and discussing it; challenging each other with questions; debating the meaning. And as they were doing that, they were entrenching it deeper into their minds and bodies, and discovering the living meaning of the Word of God.

Personally, I wish we would learn to do that in our culture! And I hope in a little way that the Tuesday Pre-Lent course is helping us do that – yes, that is a plug for the course on Tuesday at 6.30pm on Zoom!

The problem Jesus had with the Pharisees and Scribes seems to have centred around interpretation. Of course this issue is very much alive in today’s church as well – how do we interpret some of the Bible? The Pharisees had taken the law and made each and every rule sacrosanct, and added a whole load of extra teaching to make sure that you were always behaving in such a way that you could not possibly break the Law of Moses.

Jesus, on the other hand, seemed to read beyond the laws themselves into where they were pointing. Thus a law like Leviticus 19:32, which says “You shall rise before the aged, and defer to the old” to a pharisee would mean that when someone older than you came into the room, you literally stood up out of respect. To Jesus, it meant that, yes, you show respect, but mainly you help them sit down, make a space for them, offer them a drink or food, and listen attentively and with respect to what they say.

Indeed, later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “You have heard that it was said ‘you shall not commit adultery’…but I say to you that everyone who looks with lust has already committed adultery”.

Thus the difference is pharisees observing the laws, but Jesus and Christians following and fulfilling the deeper meaning. It is one of ritual obedience and tradition verses heart motivation.

And this requires intense study, lots of asking and questioning, lots of reflecting on how the law applies to us nowadays, and discerning of the general thrust of scripture. Does Deuteronomy 25:4 just ban muzzling oxen when they are treading grain, or does it actually point to us caring for animals? Of course the latter!

We see later in Jesus’ life that if it meant caring for someone, he would break laws lower down the list in order to keep those higher up – he bends sabbath laws, because he was doing so for the greater benefit of others. But the point remains: the Law of Moses, the Prophets, the Old Testament, all still stand, and should be studied and discussed with others. Those who teach it will be called great.

Being Salt and Light

Thus we arrive at the top – salt and light! You are salt! Don’t lose your flavour. You are light! Don’t hide under a hat. Being a shining light, or being salt, means doing the good works of a disciple. Remember this passage comes after the beatitudes, when Jesus says Blessed are the peacemakers, the humble, the merciful, those who want right things to be done.

These are the good things and good works of being a disciple. Those who make peace, who show mercy, and who want the justice of God enacted, those are the ones who are salt and light and who are blessed.

When I was at university and learning about Thatcherism, we had a lovely but very stereotypically left-wing professor, Dr Strange. I asked him once “If the communist revolution is inevitable, surely people should encourage hyper-capitalism, globalism, and all the rest? It will hasten inequalities and lead more quickly to the revolution?”

He said that yes, there were indeed a group of hard-line Marxists in the 1980s who said communists should actively support Thatcherism and neoliberalism, because this would indeed just make thing worse, and thus cause people to rise up and overthrow the government, bringing about the communist paradise.

But Jesus is calling us Christians not to political revolutions that may or may not improve society. His call is that we serve him, and do good in the times in which we live. And that means, the presence of our care and love, of our ‘salt’ and our ‘light’, will have the effect of stopping society becoming as bad as it could be.

If you removed Christians from the United States, healthcare would collapse. If you removed Christians from the UK’s history, we would still have slavery and very likely still be feudal. Most of our schools would disappear. We would unlikely have many hospitals. Indeed, life would be so much worse that it’s hard to imagine.

Our salt and light blesses society. Sometimes, society will recognise it. Sometimes society will not; but either way, we are called to serve Jesus, not society. The outworking of our worship and obedience to Jesus blesses those around us.

That’s a lot of information! So let us recap:

Our level of righteousness needs to exceed the rather low baseline of the pharisees, who were quite hypocritical.

We need to embrace the Old Testament and really take joy in studying it, but do so in a group, so we can draw out the deeper meanings and the general thrust of teaching. We need to look for the heart motivation and avoid the ritual obedience.

And that helps us be Salt and Light. When we know which direction the scriptures of God are pointing us, then we can be salt and light in our society. And the influence of us doing the right things in our daily lives is actually having a huge impact on our wider society.

So let us ask ourselves – is there enough light coming from our lives? If someone put me under a basket, would anyone notice?

Are we makers of peace?  Do you show mercy to people in difficulty? Can I say I live my life in a humble and respectful way?

Or am I a pharisee…? I must exceed them to enter God’s kingdom…and it is so easy to become one of them. So let us stay vigilant, and ensure we are being salt and light.

 

Sermon, Candlemas, Thursday 2 February – Luke 2:22-40 – Reverend Glen Ruffle

I’m sure you are all just itching to be a vicar. I can see it in your eyes… well, when you finally get round to taking that step, I have some good news. Presuming you get selected, you then get offered a plethora of theological training institutions across the land where you can study.

Yes – you will get paid to learn and get a degree! Admittedly it’s not a lot of money, but it really is a wonderful thing that you get an allowance to learn about God and the bible!

And the most amazing doors can open – I was able to attend Cambridge University through the church! I was in my 20s before I even learned what Cambridge and Oxford were, and then it was far too late to go back and change anything in my life. I never imagined I would be able to go and study there – and yet I was given that amazing privilege!

And so you can be reassured that most vicars have at least a degree-level education behind them – and many more continue to study throughout their lives. Indeed, many also get PhDs.

And so you might wonder…if the church is full of such bright people, how on earth is it in such a mess…? 😊

This is nothing new. The Jerusalem temple was the elite of the elite in ancient Israel. The priests who ministered in the courts of God were top of the pile, the creme-de-la-creme, the best of the best. The SAS of the priesthood world! And yet, when two Israelites came along to offer a sacrifice, as required in the Law of Moses, for the gift of their child, the temple authorities totally missed it.

Because when Mary and Joseph offered their sacrifice, as required in the law for the firstborn son, the temple had the right to redeem the son. Little Jesus could have been redeemed by the temple and employed in priestly service, because he was the firstborn. Instead, it seems that every single smarty pants priest in the temple missed out that God’s Son was in the building.

Instead, it was the “salt of the earth”, ordinary good-egg Israelites who saw what was going on. Mary and Joseph. Simeon. Anna.

Luke’s gospel celebrates the ordinary folk who just faithfully carry on, faithfully and persistently keeping their discipline in the face of pressures to compromise.

Mary and Joseph come to the temple. That would have been a pretty big journey. That means lost income while away from home, plus costs incurred on the journey south. It was expensive, but they still did it, because that is what the teaching of God said they should do. They didn’t try and rationalise it away – they did what was said.

They purchased the appropriate sacrifice, as the law said. True, they offered the cheaper option, but that was probably because they had already incurred a lot of costs, and because – like most other people in Roman Israel – they were poor! To be poor in Israel was to be ordinary. If you had some money, you were exceptional!

In the temple, they meet Simeon. He is explicitly introduced to us as devout and righteous, which means he was faithful to a lifestyle of prayer and giving to help others. He had spent his life longing for the “consolation” of Israel. Here was a man who longed for the things that God wanted. And that’s why he had the Holy Spirit on him – his heart was in line with God’s heart.

So when he is led to Jesus, he rejoices! “At last! I can die in peace! I am so happy, the promise of God has come to me! The one I have hoped for all my life is here, in my arms! WOW!”

In his arms is a child, who is God’s salvation, a light for both the Jews and the gentiles. Salvation is being saved from ourselves, our sin, and it should be finding hope in the community of believers Jesus left behind – the church!

So we’ve had salt-of-the-earth Joseph and Mary, ordinary folk who do their duty in the temple. Devout Simeon, who prays daily and looks after all the people he can, and then comes along Anna.

Anna is 84 years old, and she too has worshipped faithfully in the temple all her life. She has prayed and she has fasted regularly to see God’s work on earth, to see Israel redeemed. Regular fasting probably meant that, in addition to set festivals, every Monday and every Thursday, every week, she fasted. She was disciplined and committed, just an ordinary person desperate to see the kingdom of God on earth.

So in Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna, we see ordinary people. Not one temple priest gets mentioned – they are oblivious to the drama taking place. All their education and learning and smartness and wealth didn’t help them; it is instead in the faithful discipline of ordinary people where God is recognised – those traditional values of family, hard work, dedication and thankfulness that are often dismissed. God sees the faithful heart, the people who just keep going, trusting in him. They might not understand it all, but they keep going.

And these people help us understand what a faithful life looks like. And…brace yourself….there are some uncomfortable bits.

Prayer is a defining feature – regular, daily prayer, bringing oneself before God, humbling oneself, and asking for God to be in your life and the lives of those you love, and bringing situations you care about to God also.

It’s easier said than done! Developing a regular time of prayer is hard work and requires discipline. But there are many resources available now to help, you can find many online daily prayer services – the one I was involved with previously was an online stream from St Andrew’s in Moscow – though time differences make that one a bit awkward! But there are many others.

If you think that is hard, try fasting. Yes, there is an assumption that disciples will fast. This obviously can’t be done by people with medical conditions, but for healthy people this is actually good for you both physically and spiritually. To test your discipline, to experience hunger, and to direct your thoughts to prayer when hunger is biting, is to grow as a person.

And regular attendance at church, building your life around a community of believers, is also a common theme. Mary and Joseph are keen to bring Jesus to the temple; Simeon is a regular visitor, and Anna is perhaps most faithful of all. Church should be where we reorientate our lives to God, where we build a new family, and where we support and deepen relationships with one another and with God.

And most important, church is where Salvation and Redemption happen. As we remember, relive and point people to Jesus, we remember how we are saved from sin, have our debts erased, and are purchased from slavery to the world in order to live a new life to God.

So let us recommit to a life of discipleship, to prayer, fasting if you can, and to church and each other. And if we do that, we too will find the Holy Spirit leading us, guiding us. And then, like Anna and Simeon, we too will be guided to the source of salvation.

Sermon, Sunday 29 July 2023, the Wedding in Cana – Always the bride. Tessa Lang

1 Kings 17: v15. “And she went according to the saying of Elijah: and
she, and he, and her house, did eat many days.”
John 2: v5. “His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith
unto you, do it.”

Welcome to the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, when both our readings
remind us of God’s limitless and loving bounty, and how to readily
receive it. The spoiler hides in plain sight as do our exemplars: a widow
of drought-ravaged Zarephath and the mother of Jesus. Little wonder
the message is well camouflaged: the widow shares her miracle with
the prophet Elijah and the mother of Jesus with her divine son as he
transforms water into wine at a wedding in Cana. The widow, her son,
and the prophet had no food; a family wedding had run out of wine with
Jesus on the guest list. So please grab your spiritual sunglasses as we
gaze upon this dazzling surface, perhaps to glimpse the sublime and
ever-present relationship of God to his people.

Today we revisit the third “shewing” or miracle of Epiphany at a
marriage feast in Cana. The arrival of the Magi is the first epiphany,
when the Christ child’s divinity is revealed to gentiles. An essential
start, even if its participants numbered just 3, the setting was humble to
point of impoverishment, and political powers had them in their sights.
The second manifestation occurred in the River Jordan when the holy
spirit descended like a dove at Jesus’ baptism, causing his cousin to
suddenly recognise Jesus as Son and Sacrifice of God. We complete
the trine of manifestations this Sunday, then close the season next
Thursday with celebration of Jesus’ presentation in the Temple, timed
to honour the new infant 33 days post circumcision and his new mother
40 days post-partum.

John raises the curtain on Epiphany 3 in Cana, a small rural village a
few kilometres north of the small town of Nazareth, where Jesus has
lived amongst his relatives and their extended tribe without great
report…though not for much longer. Mother and son once again
appear at an official family occasion we can bracket with the
Presentation, albeit some 30 years later. There are changes:
Mary is now identified as the “Mother of Jesus” and Joseph is no longer
present. As the surviving eldest son, Jesus is head of the family,
though his invitation includes the first disciples he recently called:
Simon Peter and his brother Andrew; John’s older brother James and
perhaps John himself, sons of Zebedee and possibly cousins of Jesus;
Philip and Nathaniel. Drawn from family and close connections, these
recent recruits are at the starting point of a remarkable journey with the
incarnate God, poised to step onto the world stage. The countdown to
calvary has begun: building the faith and resilience of an inner circle is
essential.

John will make the task of building belief in the divine identity of Jesus
the foundation of his gospel, structured by seven statements (“ego
eimi” or I AM that I AM) and seven signs to illustrate the God-character
of Jesus. The signs all point to Christ as the incarnate God; six of them
are found only in John, with turning water into wine at Cana the very
first one. He also reminds us of their symbolic nature, selected from the
near countless acts of healing, manifesting, and commanding the
natural world that made up Christ’s daily life…when simply being in his
presence, touching the hem of his robe, transformed those with faith.
Timing also counts in wedding matters at Cana: John tells us that the
event occurred “on the third day”. The surface starts to shimmer…for
we are 2000 years advanced in time and can hear echoes of Genesis
from the Old Testament, with strongest tones gonging the New
Testament resurrection of the glorified Christ on the third day. I imagine
these would have sounded loudest for the gospel writer and evangelist,
as well.

The third day of the week would be a Tuesday, considered by Jews to
be especially favourable for a wedding – because the account of the
third day of creation features “…And God saw that it was good” twice
in honour of a double dip appearance of dry land, followed by grass,
and self-seeding herbs and fruit trees to grow upon it sustainably. It
certainly turned out to be the under-prepared bridegroom’s lucky day.
There is also narrative reason to mention the third day in context of the
first week of Jesus’ ministry on earth…the week the Son of God creates
an infrastructure to deliver a divine plan to redeem his fallen people
through his ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection. Day 1 takes place by
the Jordan, with John the Baptist, Simon Peter and his brother Andrew.
Day 2 happens somewhere between the Jordan and the hills and
valleys of central Galilee, where Philip of Bethsaida and Nathanael of
Cana are called (the later initially asking the immortal question” Can
there any good thing come out of Nazareth?” – there must have been a
local rivalry).

Day 3 does not begin with Jesus. It begins with an occasion, a location
and one specified person “…there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee
and the mother of Jesus was there.” Then we learn that Jesus and his
disciples were invited to join, and just a bit further along, that the
brothers of Jesus were also present. Clearly this is an important family
event. No sooner had he arrived, dust still on his feet, than Mary
informs him “they have no wine”.

A failure of wine supply was more than a clumsy hint it was time to
collect your coats and leave; it was a serious embarrassment and legal
breach. Provisions relating to all aspects of the bride’s married life were
agreed and warranted in the ketubah or marriage contract, signed at the
time of betrothal and enforceable under Jewish law. The burden was
on the groom’s family to offer mohar (bride price) to her father and
mattan (wedding gifts from the groom) to her. Weddings were major,
lifetime events in this time and culture, shaped as it was by concepts of
law and honour. The entire extended family and surrounding community
were involved. The party spanned days, usually a full week,
proportionate when we remember that betrothals typically lasted at
least a year before the marriage could be celebrated and the couple
begin life under the same roof.

During that time, the bridegroom prepared for his responsibilities –
building and furnishing a home for his bride, most usually as an
extension or annex to his father’s house; putting aside resources for the
wedding; preparing for the future. Only when he was ready did the
bridegroom proceed to the bride’s father’s house to let the family know
it was time at last for the ceremony and feast. If a bridegroom and by
extension, his family, fell at the hurdle of hospitality during the first week
of the marriage when they had convened the gathering, it brought
shame, and would damage the family and relationship for life.

Perhaps you, too, have also known times when it felt as if the wine had
run out just when needed most. Like us, the Mother of Jesus does not
know what to do, but she knows who to ask – Jesus, her son and her
Christ – this she does, immediately, with direct and unshakeable faith.
When he responds to her as the Son of God – “Woman, what have I to
do with thee?” – instead of as a son or family member, she moves on in
faith, instructing the servants to “do it”, whatsoever he says.

Fortunately, it seems Mary is involved in the proceedings and known to
the servants; most significantly, it is Jesus who asks this task of them
as only the son of God could. Still, I am staggered that the servants do
the extra work without protest or delay: six stone vessels to fill with 20
to 30 gallons of water, weighing in at 170 – 250 pounds not including
the jar itself. Not like building the pyramids, but certainly hard work.
Not to mention the obvious: it wasn’t water that was in short supply!
She also gives us a masterclass in communication with the living God
who requires no instruction or commentary from us. We need only
come to him: ask, listen, then do what your saviour says, with the help
of other servants of God. The resulting transformation will be more
astounding that anything we could have imagined…as in Cana, the
miracle happens when the wine runs out and we realise we are
powerless to refill it.

I have come to believe that what Mary hears in Jesus’ reply, often
characterised as harsh or dismissive, is what she knows in her heart.
The sideways look of love and understanding that passes between
Jesus and his Mother in the artwork on the cover of today’s Order of
Service tells this story. And it can be said no better than the words of
her Magnificat “For he has looked with favour on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: The Almighty has
done great things for me, And holy is his Name.”

Mary may understand that everyone passes through their own time of
birth and death whilst her beloved son is destined for a life like no other.
But did she understand what Jesus meant when he said “my time is not
yet come” on that day in Cana? That the last cup he would fill with wine
and provide to a feast on this earth would represent his spilt blood and
sacrifice? That he himself must drink the cup of judgment and death
that rightfully belongs to us to save us from sin and restore us to the
realms of joy and bliss, abundance and eternal life? We cannot know,
but I do believe she lived and died in acceptance of and gratitude for
her special relationship with God. Also, that she was right to be
confident Jesus would demonstrate his response to the question “what
have I to do with thee?” with his own multiplicity of meaning.

For Jesus does enter the narrative, directing the servants clearly and
without drawing attention to himself, re-purposing water vessels
designed for ritual cleansing; there was a lot of that called for at
mealtimes so they stood at hand. After all 6 are filled to the brim, he
tells the workers to draw out a sample and take it to the head Steward,
who pronounces it an excellent vintage, surprised that the truly good
wine has been kept for last! He was clearly none the wiser about
whence it came, the bridegroom equally bemused. It is a nearly private
miracle, when only Jesus and his mother; the disciples who witnessed
glory and believed; and the servants who did the work; who know the
source of the wine. Job done, and in God’s own time, remarkable when
you think that up to 180 gallons of vintage wine was manifested, surely
enough to cellar and supply the happy couple for all their love feasts
and celebrations.

Jesus’ intervention references the Old Testament scripture tradition,
where the metaphor of a wedding describes the relationship of God and
his people; bound together by covenant but living in permanent danger
of a dry party through the people’s unfaithfulness and disobedience.
Scarcity of wine signifies separation, loss, and withdrawal of blessing.
The only substance water is transformed into is blood, as in the deadly
first Plague upon the Egyptians told in Exodus. Judgment and
separation can be overcome only if his vibrant new wine displaces the
old water of obligation and tears.

Jesus embodies the messianic promise of sweet wine flowing at the
ultimate wedding feast of love and true intimacy; a rich new wine that
cleanses God’s people from the inside, renewing and restoring health
and righteousness in a profound and permanent way, unlike the
external application of water and laws. This wine is given in endless
abundance and joy by the Lord of the Feast, the Bridegroom Jesus
Christ.

I think that is why the bride is not introduced at this wedding; she is a
place holder for each one of us, called and liberated to always be the
bride, never the lesser bridesmaid. As we move along the way of
redemption, we take on more of the image of God in which we were
first created. The wine keeps on pouring, inviting us to take our place
at the table with the God of our joy and gladness, now and always. This
is the everlasting miracle of the wedding in Cana, the first and
fundamental sign in the gospel of John. AMEN

Sermon, Sunday 22 January 2023, Epiphany III, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity – the Reverend Glen Ruffle

It’s a game of two halves – and our gospel reading today definitely had two parts! The Kingdom of God, and the calling of the first disciples. In the latter, we have four names given to us: Simon Peter and Andrew, and then James and John, sons of Zebedee (not he from The Magic Roundabout).

There is something interesting about these names. Simon Peter has a mixed name – Simon is Jewish, but Peter is from the Greek Petros. Andrew is a name derived from the Greek, Andreas. In their names, these men – who are Jews – show the mixed nature of their part of Galilee.

James and John, on the other hand, both carry very clear, Jewish names: Yohan and Yakov (forgive my pronunciation if you speak Hebrew!). Thus even in the calling of the disciples, there is a hint that the message of Jesus is going to reach out into the pagan, Greek world.

Indeed, Matthew quotes Isaiah, pointing out explicitly that Galilee of the Gentiles (gentiles are those who are outside of the covenant of God) – Galilee of the Gentiles has seen a great light. This area of mixed influence, where Jew and Gentile intermingle, has experienced the dawn of a light.

In other words, the good news of Jesus – of forgiveness to live a new kind of life – is for all people, Jew and Gentile, Black and White, British and European, even Arsenal supporter and Tottenham supporter… this is good news for everyone.

Good news for everyone – yet we divide!

This week is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It is rather an embarrassment that this week exists, given that the one we claim to follow commanded unity and prayed that we would love one another, and showed how we could care. But alas, we have this week of prayer because in the last 2000 years we have often done the opposite. And it is no wonder that the good news of Jesus, which is for everyone, is often overlooked because we Christians are slinging mud at each other.

Different denominations, and splits within denominations, all plague the global Christian church. We Anglicans are of course part of it – born of a division with the Catholic church 500 years ago; and of course the Catholic and Orthodox branches split 500 years before that.

At the heart of much division is idolatry: saying I am SO right that I can act like God and judge you. Division is us trying to be God.

And of course this week we’ve had announcements from the House of Bishops about same-sex marriage that have caused even more accusations to fly. Many Christians seem to think there is nothing better than trying to shape everyone else into their own image. “You should think like me, and I will batter you until you do so”!

First things First

Don’t get me wrong, these are important issues, but I can’t help but feel we are drowning the good news and getting attention for the wrong reasons, and rather missing that basic call to be followers of Christ, meaning that he is the judge, the adult; we are just the little children, the learning disciples.

And this is what Paul is talking about in our reading from 1 Corinthians. Division is in the church, and Paul is pointing out that everything – who baptised whom – is peripheral to the core issue of following Jesus.

This week (on Tuesday) we remembered Saint Anthony of Egypt, who lived 1700 years ago, and on Thursday we remembered Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester, who lived a mere 1000 years ago. These men of the church spent so long praying, serving the poor, and teaching the faith they had inherited, making sure they were not trapped by love for worldly things, that we remember and honour them millennia later.

What would Britain be like if the church copied them and the many women of faith who have come since? What if we were taming ourselves, seeking only deeper knowledge of God through serving each other? What if we were too busy praying for and helping drug addicts that we missed whether someone had the same view of church hierarchy as we do?

Kingdom of God v Kingdom of Career

Our gospel reading today showed the preaching of Jesus: repent, for the Kingdom of God is near. The Kingdom of God is the rule of God in the lives of believers. When you make your behaviour adapt to reflect how Jesus lived, then you are living according to different rules – to the rules of the Kingdom of God.

Yet it all begins with the word repent – stopping the process of living purely for our own gain, and turning round to reorder our lives for the sake of a higher calling. Paying the cost of discipleship.

When I was working in business, I tried to do good work, and tried to make sure my good work was noticed, to further my advancement up the ladder. I did overtime whenever requested, to impress my bosses. Promotion meant more money. Basically, I was living under the rules of the Kingdom of Career. Self promotion, seek money. The Kingdom of Career. I’m not saying you don’t need to do those things, but they are the rules of a different kingdom.

But as a Christian, I found I needed to change my life. Was it important to sacrifice time talking with my family for the sake of possible promotion? No, for me it no longer was. People became more important – knowing my mum desired nothing else than time with me, and knowing that the work would still get done tomorrow, helped me change priorities.

Under the Kingdom of God, I had to reorder things. Did all my salary go into savings? No longer: I found I needed to start giving to support the church and Christian mission organisations. I began living under a new Kingdom. Just like St Anthony lived differently, and Wulfstan lived differently, and those first disciples of Jesus lived differently.

Do not judge

And if Jesus is my Lord, he is also my judge, and he is the one I listen to. Jesus says “Do not judge, or you too shall be judged”. As a follower of Jesus, I don’t want to pronounce judgement on people but instead I want to point them to humble obedience to Christ. We’ve done enough judging each other over the past 2000 years – perhaps we should put more energy into remembering that God will judge us – so if we do judge, we had better be careful to make sure we are in line with him, and not just seeking our own selfish desires!

Work for unity and listen to the other

I am technically still the curate of St Andrew’s Church in Moscow, and that church is still technically in the Diocese in Europe, and the prayer for Christian unity is very much part of the Diocese in Europe’s work. As minority groups, Anglicans in Europe seek to build bridges with other churches, such as the Orthodox and Catholics.

There is so much we can learn from Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans and different denominations, but in order to do that, to work on a path of unity, we have to first lay down our agendas and to be humble and willing to listen to others. Of course we have our opinion, but until we consider that our opinion could be wrong, we remain trapped in a silo of ignorance.

I spent some time in Israel a few years back with a mixed group of people. The most difficult ones in the group were those who were utterly convinced they were right and we were wrong. There was no way to even have a discussion with them. I was already judged, I was wrong and a heretic and thus there was no basis to even discuss anything with me.

But when you let in different ideas and opinions, and respect them, and listen to them, you allow a person into your life, you show respect, and you show humility. And on that basis, you begin to build bridges.

Differences are a strength!

I want to make it clear though that unity does not mean uniformity. There is a great book by the late Professor Rodney Stark called The Triumph of Christianity. I thoroughly recommend it – and in it, Stark asks why has Christianity in America survived so well and been so vibrant? He concludes the answer is the freedom that allows diversity of expression – a freedom Europe very often did not allow because of state control over churches. In the US, Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, independent – all have freedom to flourish – and compete – meaning people can find a church where they feel most comfortable. Thus differences are a strength: and it is good that Anglican churches in London cover the whole spectrum, from freestyle wave-your-hands through to high choral masses! We have a choice where we go, to worship God in the way we feel most suited.

Let’s wrap up:

  1. We have seen the work of the Diocese in Europe, building bridges and helping us learn more about Catholic, Orthodox and other expressions of Christian faith, and we join them in prayer for more Christian unity.
  2. We have explored that judging each other is only to be done with great care – far better to live each day humbly knowing that God will judge us individually!
  3. We have seen how the good news is that Jesus is for all people, and through submission to the Lordship of Jesus, we can end the cycles of division and begin the work of bridge building and reconciliation.
  4. And we have seen that unity is not uniformity, but that we are focused on being disciples of Jesus, and obeying his teaching and commands, following the person of Christ who still leads those who seek him.

It is amazing for me that, as I pray, read and reflect on the Bible, bring my life to Jesus, and spend time with God’s people – that’s you lot(!) – I find I am gently led into places and directions I never dreamed of going before. Doors open, meetings just happen – Jesus leads in his mysterious way!

So let us copy those first disciples – Peter, Andrew, James and John, and then Anthony, and then Wulfstan, and now all Christians across Europe – and let us commit to unity, to judging only ourselves, and to seeking Jesus in prayer, the bible, and in each other, our church family, the body of Christ.

Sermon, the Baptism of Christ, Sunday 8 January 2023 – The Reverend Glen Ruffle

Happy new year and if you are Orthodox, Merry Christmas to you! It is of course the Orthodox Christmas, though William was most disappointed to learn I have never seen the Orthodox practice that we are going to do today actually put into practice, even though I lived in an Orthodox country!

I did however see people cutting holes in the ice, and going for a swim – in Russian it is called being a морж (walrus!). There was a group of crazy English people in Moscow who did indulge in this ice swimming, but even though I was invited I had the good sense to decline!

As William said, we’ve jumped about thirty years in two days: from the Epiphany – the wise men coming to Jesus in his infancy – to today, with the Baptism of Christ.

But I can’t read today’s text without one big question striking me: why did Jesus need to be baptised? Let’s think this through:

  • John the Baptist explicitly provides a baptism of repentance
  • We know Jesus is the one who takes our sins. He doesn’t need to repent
  • John recognised the problem: when he saw Jesus approaching, he knew full well who should be baptising whom! It’s like me showing off my football skills, and then Lionel Messi walks onto the pitch. I know I’m in deep trouble!

So let’s be clear: the baptism was a baptism of repentance. But the gospel tells us Jesus was not repenting. Indeed, John is the one who is repenting. And Jesus says “Let it happen. Go with it. This fulfils all righteousness”. Now, whatever this answer means, it satisfied John, it satisfied Matthew and it satisfied the first readers of his gospel, the early Christians.

So, what is going on?

First, Matthew places this baptism at the start of Jesus’ ministry. Baptism is about cleansing and rebirth, so in a sense it is launching the ministry of Jesus. It is a launch.

Secondly, this baptism is taking place in the Jordan River. This is where Elijah handed over his ministry to Elisha. This is where Moses handed over to Joshua. This is where John’s ministry is decreasing, and that of Jesus is coming to the fore. This is the change of old to new.

Thirdly, the Jordan is where God’s people crossed into the promised land. And in that crossing, they emulated the crossing of the Reed Sea as they exited Egypt. This was the escape from slavery and tyranny, and the other was grasping the promises and bringing in a new reality. New identities were beginning: you went in on one side a people in a desert, nomads; you came out the other in your homeland, people on a mission. This is commissioning and the giving of identity.

Fourth, Jesus is Lord. In other words, he is the one who heads his people. This means he embodies the people of God. Just as King Charles III will, on 6th May 2023, symbolically die to himself and pick up the mantle of representing all of us, embodying us as a nation into one person before God, so too does Jesus. Jesus takes the people of God, leads us into the waters to be washed and reborn fresh and new. Jesus is not repenting personally, but he is taking us, his people, through the waters of repentance with him.

That is why the Bible is adamant that we must be In Jesus, to Dwell In Him. To Abide In Him. If we are ‘in’ him, we go with him through the waters of baptism and find forgiveness In Him. We go into death and then life with Jesus.

Fifthly, Jesus is showing us how to behave. The people reading Matthew’s gospel were Jews who wanted to know “how do we live righteously? How do we fulfil righteousness?” Matthew mentions righteousness seven times – a holy number. We know it was a concern.

And then along comes Jesus to John, and says this is how we “fulfil all righteousness”. Thus doing what God wants, obeying his commands, is how we fulfil righteousness. As such, the baptism of Jesus is a righteous thing – and righteous people will emulate it.

At the end of his gospel, Matthew gives us the great commission with its list of things believers should be doing: “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all I have commanded you”. In other words, fulfilling righteousness is obeying the commission to make disciples, baptising them, and teaching them obedience to Jesus.

That’s a lot of theology! Let’s recap:

  • we have the launch of Jesus’ ministry;
  • the handing over and change from old to new;
  • commissioning and new identities;
  • the embodiment of his people;
  • and a call to obey him if we are to be righteous.

Baptism: it is copying our Lord and saviour. It’s joining with him, following in his footsteps. It is obedience.

I remember the faces of parents who bring their children for baptism, and how they are so shocked when you explain to them that their lovely little baptism for their little baby child is actually that child’s funeral! But that is what baptism is! It is the death of the old, and coming out of the water again as a new person. A new start. Dedicated to live for a new purpose to serve God and be righteous.

And then, as new people, we can hear the voice: “This is my Son, this is my Daughter, in whom I am well pleased”.

And this new life of righteousness begins with baptism, a conscious, public choice to follow Christ.

If you’ve not been baptised and you want to follow Jesus, then speak to me or William and we will help you take this step of obedience and make this sign to the world that a new life is beginning.

If you have been baptised, then remember what it means:

  1. the launch a new life,
  2. the change from old to new;
  3. commissioning a new identity;
  4. oneness with the people of God (embodiment),
  5. and obeying him to be righteous.

Of course in today’s world, pouring water on someone, or submersing them in public, is a weird thing to do. And so too is what we will be doing today – blessing the canal.

But actually, life is full of outward reflections of inward, spiritual truths: in church, we anoint with oil; many kneel for prayer, and cross ourselves.

But outside of church we also do symbolic thing: we humans leap about to sonic waves, called dancing. We flap our metacarpi together to reward a good performance – we clap!

And we exchange and wear circular chemical elements that are transition metals with a group 11 element and atomic number of 79 in a public forum – we give wedding rings!

These are all symbolic actions, and they have meaning. We are not being superstitious when we do them, we are reminding ourselves that materialism is not everything, and that our outward actions reflect our inward constitution.

If someone is baptised, they are saying to the world “I am changing, metaphorically dying. The old me is dead, and I am now someone new. I want to live differently, to start again. This outward baptism shows an inward change.”

If someone blesses the waters of the canal, we are saying to the world “We Christians are people who live under the authority of Jesus, and he and us want the best for everyone who lives and works on the canal.

We want businesses to flourish. We want health, and safety. And that’s because God wants these things. God wants to restore and reconcile ALL THINGS, all of creation, to himself.”

But like with baptism, restoration of all things happens when the current ways of living are brought to God, made to die in the water, and then brought out the other side, relaunched in new life under His authority.

  • So join us today in proclaiming God’s desire to restore all things as we bless the canal
  • Reflect on where you are – should you be baptised in obedience to Christ?
  • And if you were baptised, ask yourself, are you living faithfully to your new birth, under the Lordship of Jesus?

Sermon, the Baptism of Christ, 8 January 2023 – the Reverend Glen Ruffle

Happy new year and if you are Orthodox, Merry Christmas to you! It is of course the Orthodox Christmas, though William was most disappointed to learn I have never seen the Orthodox practice that we are going to do today actually put into practice, even though I lived in an Orthodox country!

I did however see people cutting holes in the ice, and going for a swim – in Russian it is called being a морж (walrus!). There was a group of crazy English people in Moscow who did indulge in this ice swimming, but even though I was invited I had the good sense to decline!

As William said, we’ve jumped about thirty years in two days: from the Epiphany – the wise men coming to Jesus in his infancy – to today, with the Baptism of Christ.

But I can’t read today’s text without one big question striking me: why did Jesus need to be baptised? Let’s think this through:

  • John the Baptist explicitly provides a baptism of repentance
  • We know Jesus is the one who takes our sins. He doesn’t need to repent
  • John recognised the problem: when he saw Jesus approaching, he knew full well who should be baptising whom! It’s like me showing off my football skills, and then Lionel Messi walks onto the pitch. I know I’m in deep trouble!

So let’s be clear: the baptism was a baptism of repentance. But the gospel tells us Jesus was not repenting. Indeed, John is the one who is repenting. And Jesus says “Let it happen. Go with it. This fulfils all righteousness”. Now, whatever this answer means, it satisfied John, it satisfied Matthew and it satisfied the first readers of his gospel, the early Christians.

So, what is going on?

First, Matthew places this baptism at the start of Jesus’ ministry. Baptism is about cleansing and rebirth, so in a sense it is launching the ministry of Jesus. It is a launch.

Secondly, this baptism is taking place in the Jordan River. This is where Elijah handed over his ministry to Elisha. This is where Moses handed over to Joshua. This is where John’s ministry is decreasing, and that of Jesus is coming to the fore. This is the change of old to new.

Thirdly, the Jordan is where God’s people crossed into the promised land. And in that crossing, they emulated the crossing of the Reed Sea as they exited Egypt. This was the escape from slavery and tyranny, and the other was grasping the promises and bringing in a new reality. New identities were beginning: you went in on one side a people in a desert, nomads; you came out the other in your homeland, people on a mission. This is commissioning and the giving of identity.

Fourth, Jesus is Lord. In other words, he is the one who heads his people. This means he embodies the people of God. Just as King Charles III will, on 6th May 2023, symbolically die to himself and pick up the mantle of representing all of us, embodying us as a nation into one person before God, so too does Jesus. Jesus takes the people of God, leads us into the waters to be washed and reborn fresh and new. Jesus is not repenting personally, but he is taking us, his people, through the waters of repentance with him.

That is why the Bible is adamant that we must be In Jesus, to Dwell In Him. To Abide In Him. If we are ‘in’ him, we go with him through the waters of baptism and find forgiveness In Him. We go into death and then life with Jesus.

Fifthly, Jesus is showing us how to behave. The people reading Matthew’s gospel were Jews who wanted to know “how do we live righteously? How do we fulfil righteousness?” Matthew mentions righteousness seven times – a holy number. We know it was a concern.

And then along comes Jesus to John, and says this is how we “fulfil all righteousness”. Thus doing what God wants, obeying his commands, is how we fulfil righteousness. As such, the baptism of Jesus is a righteous thing – and righteous people will emulate it.

At the end of his gospel, Matthew gives us the great commission with its list of things believers should be doing: “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all I have commanded you”. In other words, fulfilling righteousness is obeying the commission to make disciples, baptising them, and teaching them obedience to Jesus.

That’s a lot of theology! Let’s recap:

  • we have the launch of Jesus’ ministry;
  • the handing over and change from old to new;
  • commissioning and new identities;
  • the embodiment of his people;
  • and a call to obey him if we are to be righteous.

Baptism: it is copying our Lord and saviour. It’s joining with him, following in his footsteps. It is obedience.

I remember the faces of parents who bring their children for baptism, and how they are so shocked when you explain to them that their lovely little baptism for their little baby child is actually that child’s funeral! But that is what baptism is! It is the death of the old, and coming out of the water again as a new person. A new start. Dedicated to live for a new purpose to serve God and be righteous.

And then, as new people, we can hear the voice: “This is my Son, this is my Daughter, in whom I am well pleased”.

And this new life of righteousness begins with baptism, a conscious, public choice to follow Christ.

If you’ve not been baptised and you want to follow Jesus, then speak to me or William and we will help you take this step of obedience and make this sign to the world that a new life is beginning.

If you have been baptised, then remember what it means:

  1. the launch a new life,
  2. the change from old to new;
  3. commissioning a new identity;
  4. oneness with the people of God (embodiment),
  5. and obeying him to be righteous.

Of course in today’s world, pouring water on someone, or submersing them in public, is a weird thing to do. And so too is what we will be doing today – blessing the canal.

But actually, life is full of outward reflections of inward, spiritual truths: in church, we anoint with oil; many kneel for prayer, and cross ourselves.

But outside of church we also do symbolic thing: we humans leap about to sonic waves, called dancing. We flap our metacarpi together to reward a good performance – we clap!

And we exchange and wear circular chemical elements that are transition metals with a group 11 element and atomic number of 79 in a public forum – we give wedding rings!

These are all symbolic actions, and they have meaning. We are not being superstitious when we do them, we are reminding ourselves that materialism is not everything, and that our outward actions reflect our inward constitution.

If someone is baptised, they are saying to the world “I am changing, metaphorically dying. The old me is dead, and I am now someone new. I want to live differently, to start again. This outward baptism shows an inward change.”

If someone blesses the waters of the canal, we are saying to the world “We Christians are people who live under the authority of Jesus, and he and us want the best for everyone who lives and works on the canal.

We want businesses to flourish. We want health, and safety. And that’s because God wants these things. God wants to restore and reconcile ALL THINGS, all of creation, to himself.”

But like with baptism, restoration of all things happens when the current ways of living are brought to God, made to die in the water, and then brought out the other side, relaunched in new life under His authority.

  • So join us today in proclaiming God’s desire to restore all things as we bless the canal
  • Reflect on where you are – should you be baptised in obedience to Christ?
  • And if you were baptised, ask yourself, are you living faithfully to your new birth, under the Lordship of Jesus?