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Every so often one comes upon the claim (I did so recently) that “Jesus never existed.” No reputable historian of the first century takes this seriously, but because such a claim can be made and believed by even intelligent people who are not historians, I outline just a little of the evidence that refutes it.
The earliest first-century reference to Jesus is found in the letters of Paul of Tarsus. No-one, I think, doubts the existence of Paul (he is even in some quarters credited with the invention of Christianity), or suggests that the letters (most of them at least) are forgeries. They date from the fifties of the first century, and are addressed to various communities that Paul had either visited (Corinth, Galatia) or intended to visit (Rome).
It is clear that for some years prior to the letters Paul had been travelling around Asia Minor and Greece teaching that Jesus of Nazareth was the Jewish Messiah (“Christos”). In so doing he had not surprisingly incurred the hostility of both Jewish and Roman authorities. It is absolutely clear from the letters that Paul himself believed that Jesus had lived and had been executed in Jerusalem by the Romans some twenty to thirty years earlier. He also tells his readers that, to his shame, at an earlier stage of his career he himself had persecuted those who made the same claim that he now accepted. This period of his life must be dated to the thirties of the century. This is therefore evidence that by that time, only a few years after the supposed execution of Jesus, there was already a group of people in and around Jerusalem who believed Jesus to be the Messiah, and who attracted unfavourable attention from the authorities. Elsewhere, Paul gives the names of some of the leaders of this movement, Peter and James. No-one, I think, claims that they did not exist.
It is totally incredible that, in the context of first-century Judaism, a Messianic claimant could be put forward who simply did not exist. Claims regarding his supposed resurrection were countered by accusations that the disciples had stolen the body, not by saying that of course there was no body, because no such person had existed. This (on the evidence of Paul’s letters) must have been within a few years of the events in question. If Jesus never existed, we have to believe that, quite spontaneously, there arose a movement of people who claimed to have known him personally (though presumably outside the movement no-one could even remember him) and that he had been so notorious that the Romans had executed him as a Messianic claimant (though, again, no-one else could recall this), all within a year or two of it supposedly having happened.
Of course, apart from Paul’s letters, but only a little later, we also have the accounts of Jesus’ life we call the Gospels. Though there is clearly some interdependence, they each have their own special features, complementary but not contradictory to one another, which suggests that they reflect real events. One author (Luke) stresses his efforts to establish the historical facts; and he continues his narrative of Jesus with an account (admittedly schematic) of the early years following, including an outline of Paul’s career that seems independent of the letters we have.
In any other context, such literary evidence would be regarded by historians as more than sufficient to establish the main facts. It is backed up by what we know from secular sources about the rise of the Christian movement within the Roman Empire. Given the shortness of the time-scale involved, and the unpopularity of the movement with religious and political authorities, it seems incredible that it should flourish when the obvious and then easily-established riposte might be made, “But Jesus never existed.”
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A sermon preached at All Hallows, Easton, Sunday August 14, 2016
We are keeping tomorrow today- that is, we are celebrating today tomorrow’s feast of the Assumption of our blessed Lady into heaven. In a way, Christians are always celebrating tomorrow today, because we believe that the eternal life which God has promised us hereafter has already begun in this life. In Baptism we renounce the old life and standards of this sinful world, and “put on Christ”- clothe ourselves, as it were, with the life and standards of Christ. True, we often fall short of those standards, so that the new life we live is weakened; but unless we deliberately renounce our discipleship of Christ (and even then he never renounces us) we will reach our journey’s end in heaven.
Today we celebrate Mary’s journey’s end. For the most part, the details of that journey are hidden from us. We see her first as a girl in Nazareth, answering the angel’s call: “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord.” We follow her through the next year, visiting Elizabeth and travelling with Joseph to Bethlehem for the birth of her son, and soon afterwards she disappears for about twelve years, until she and Joseph search for Jesus and find him in the Temple. then she disappears from view again until Jesus begins his public ministry. At Cana she speaks: “Do whatever he tells you,” and some three years later stands at the foot of the Cross, and receives the disciple John as her new child and also he carer. She is with the disciples in the upper room at Pentecost, and the rest is silence. How long afterwards she remained on earth we have no idea.
From a very early time, the Church has believed that at the end of her life Mary was received body and soul into heaven. While the bones of practically every other saint have been revered and enshrined, and some of the claims seem unlikely (it is said that the head of John the Baptist is preserved in several different places), there has never been any claim that the bones of Mary might be found on earth. Why should this be?
This is where we need a bit of theology. Right at the beginning of the Bible, we learn that God did not intend human beings to die. This truth is couched in story form, in the way that could be understood and remembered in a less scientific age than our own. God places the first human beings in a garden, a garden in which grow the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the tree of life. Because Adam and Eve tried to snatch a certain equality with God (that is the meaning of “eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”), they were excluded from access to the tree of life. Their lives would be marked by sorrow, and would end in death. The whole Bible story after that is the story of how God seeks to rescue his children from their self-inflicted exile, to save them from death, and eventually to create a new heaven and a new earth for them to live in.
St Paul speaks of Jesus as the “Second Adam”, one who did not snatch at equality with God (as the first Adam had), but emptied himself and became obedient even to the death of the cross. Then he was raised bodily from the tomb, and ascended into heaven as the King of all creation. Christ was sinless, yet he died for our sins. In him, God as it were “re-booted” the universe, and gave it a fresh start. Christ is the New Adam- but where is the new Eve? In the original story, Eve was the indispensible help-meet of Adam, as innocent as he was until their common fall. God made mankind male and female, sharing the task of tending God’s world. And that is how we must see the position of Mary in the new order of salvation. Her obedience (“Behold, the handmaid of the Lord.”) countermanded the disobedience of Eve. Standing at the Cross, she united herself with Jesus in his self-sacrifice for our salvation. Receiving John, she received all her son’s disciples as her children.
The Church’s belief in the Assumption rests on these principles: Mary, the new Eve, was as innocent as the first Eve prior to the fall, and became the indispensible instrument whereby the new Adam entered the world. Jesus is “Emmanuel, God-with-us”, and Mary is mother of God. Like her son, she passed through the gates of death at the end of her earthly life; but like her son, death could not hold her, and so she already has the fullness of the resurrection.
Never forget: our destiny is not simply “going to heaven when we die.” That is only the intermediate stage. Every Sunday in the Creed we say that we believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. In the Apostles’ Creed it is even more explicit: “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” Easter Day and August 15th testify that we really mean this. New heaven, new earth, new bodies. That is our tomorrow.
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Sermon preached at All Hallows, Easton, 17th July 2016
(Col 1.15-28; Lk 10.38-42)
What a contrast there seems to be, between the Christ of the Epistle, “The image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation…”, and the Jesus of the Gospel, the humble rabbi sitting in the house of Martha and Mary and listening to the petty complaints of one against the other. And yet, both these pictures are true. The man who walked the roads of Galilee two thousand years ago, who received hospitality from ordinary human beings with all their faults and failings, who was rejected and put to death because small-minded people could not accept his message, and put their trust in human politics: this man was in very truth the Image of the God we cannot see, the Creator of the world, the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and who by his very death on the Cross has brought about the reconciliation of the world to God, and the peace that passes understanding.
In the light of the terrible events in France on Thursday- and of equally terrible events in France and elsewhere that seem to be unending, how can we believe that Christ has already brought about peace and reconciliation? The short answer is, of course, that he has not yet brought it about, he has only opened the possibility for it to come about, and he has commissioned his Church- which means you and me, not Popes and Archbishops and Bishops- to continue his work, even if at times we suffer the same misunderstanding, rejection and suffering that he did.
Look again at the domestic picture of Jesus in the house of his friends. Luke does not explain that this house was at Bethany, just outside Jerusalem. He does not connect it with the events of Holy Week, when Jesus lodged there immediately before his Passion. We can assume, then, that this was at some other time, and that Jesus frequently stayed there. Maybe this was his first visit- who knows? Anyway, the story is familiar. Martha is busy in the kitchen, Mary sits on the floor at Jesus’ feet, fascinated by his teaching. Martha is understandably annoyed at being left to do all the serving herself. It is interesting that she does not speak to Mary directly, though: she speaks to Jesus. “Master, don’t you care…? Tell her…” It is almost as if she thinks it is Jesus’ fault that Mary is so fascinated by him! He is the one who should have realised how over-worked Martha is, he is the one who should have told Mary to get up off the floor and go and help her sister! How often do we blame the Lord for letting this happen! But there is something very affectionate in the way Jesus calls her twice by name, “Martha, Martha!” Yes, I can see that you have such a lot to do, but I haven’t come here simply for food and lodging, but to be with my friends! The dinner can wait, come and sit with me and let us talk.
Jesus is the Peacemaker. Even in little domestic squabbles, he seeks to reconcile. He reconciles by inviting those complaining to listen to him, to sit with him and pay attention to his teaching. Our job now is to go on inviting people to listen to Jesus, rather than trying to sort out the world’s troubles without him. The reason is this, that Jesus, this very human Jesus, is indeed the central figure in all Creation, the One in whom the Creator himself has come to visit us (just as he visited Martha and Mary). That is what Christianity is about, God-with-us, Emmanuel, in Jesus Christ.
Jesus reminded us time and again that we all have One Father in heaven, and that all human beings are brothers and sisters. No one is a stranger, a foreigner, an alien. And what we do to one another, we do to Jesus in whose image we are made. Somehow we must convince the world, and especially the people of violence, the terrorists (of whatever ideology) that this is so.
Theresa May very eloquently expressed her desire to build a society in which old and young, rich and poor, the sick and the healthy, and whatever other contrasts you can think of, are equally cared for. That is a wonderful ideal, but I believe it will only become a reality when we remember that we are (or should be) a Christian nation in which the fundamental truths and values exemplified in the life of Jesus are the bedrock of our beliefs. We are frail human beings, and we often fail to live up to our ideals, but we must not give up on them. When we pray for our daily bread, we must remember to share it fairly with those who lack it. When we pray for forgiveness, we must offer it to those who offend us. When we hear of terrible events, we must not give way to despair or to retaliation. By the blood of his cross Christ saved us, and all other bloodshed is a blasphemy against the love of God.
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Sermon preached at All Hallows, Easton, July 3rd 2016
The Gospel story is familiar to us. It is Easter Day, and the disciples have been visited by the risen Lord. But for some reason- no point in speculating what it may have been- Thomas was absent. He did not have that experience. The others tell him, “We have seen the Lord!”, and Thomas can see that evidently they believe it. Their joy must have been manifest, in contrast to the despair following the crucifixion. But compared to the certainty that Jesus was dead (Luke tells us in his Gospel that all the friends of Jesus stood at a distance, witnessing the crucifixion, even if only John was brave enough to stand by Mary at the foot of the cross)- compared with the evidence of his own eyes, what was the value of second-hand testimony? The dead are dead- they don’t come back. As a good Jew, and like Martha, Thomas believed in the resurrection at the end of the world, but not before.
Thomas had been with Jesus for maybe three years. He had seen what Jesus did, he had heard what Jesus taught. He was convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. In Jewish belief, the Messiah was the True King that God would send to bring Israel back from its long estrangement from God, and usher in a new world-order of peace and justice, not just for Israel alone, but for all the nations. New heavens, and a new earth. This was the Hope of Israel, God’s wayward people. Thomas hoped in Jesus, and then Jesus died; and not just died, but was put to death in the most cruel and shameful way. It was not that Thomas ceased to love Jesus his friend and master; but his hope was gone. His friends may have had some sort of vision, they may have seen a ghost- but for Thomas to believe, he needed to see with his own eyes, touch with his own hands.
And eight days later, Jesus comes again, and this time Thomas is there. Think about those eight days, for Thomas. A week in which everyone else is full of joy, full of conviction, while he simply does not know what to think- but he stays with his friends. He does not go off on his own. He remains part of the family. So when Jesus comes, Thomas is ready. When Jesus comes, Thomas does not need to perform all his tests and procedures. And he goes further. This is not just the teacher he has followed for three years, a human being like himself. Human, yes- but much more! The God of Israel himself has manifested himself and is present before him! Jesus almost teases him- “Come on, Thomas, touch, feel! Make certain!” But Thomas simply replies, “My Lord and my God!” The Resurrection means the new world has begun!
Some time ago I read how a famous writer and historian lost his faith after a friend died. He had been a conventional believer, but suddenly, God was gone. “There was no God, and I had no faith…I no longer believed, no longer even wanted to believe.” There are many people who can relate to that, after the death of someone they love, maybe after they have prayed and prayed for a different outcome. While there was life, there was hope. Now, they feel literally hopeless and numb. What is there left for them to believe in?
But eventually, faith returned. The writer realised that he was faced with a choice between a bleak and valueless world, and one where love and forgiveness were at least possibilities. Sitting in Church one Sunday, watching others walking up to the altar, he was overwhelmed with a sense of companionship, gratitude and joy. Reflecting on this, he realised that in one sense he had made his choice, and yet in another sense it was a gift he had received. Like Thomas he had to wait. He could not simply force himself to believe. But he did not abandon his friends who did believe, but whose faith and hope he could not yet share. And when faith returned, it was at the same time both his own choice, and a gift from God. He had not, literally, touched the Lord- but God had touched him.
In our first reading, the prophet is waiting for a word from God, a word of comfort in a time of trial. But God only says, “The vision you want is waiting for the proper time. It’s surely coming, though it seems slow to you. Wait patiently, and trust me.” In our second lesson, St Paul reminds us that we are none of us foreigners in God’s kingdom, we are citizens, fellow citizens with the saints. The Church on earth and the Church in heaven are one family, or like a building partly complete and partly still under construction. We are the part that is still work in progress, and like all work in progress that can be full of frustration and disappointment. Sometimes it is very hard to hope. That is when we must remember that the greatest virtue is neither faith nor hope, important as these are. The greatest thing is to love: to love the God who made us with all our hearts; and to love each other, made in God’s image, as we love ourselves. God, though unseen, loves us; and so, still, do all those we love, but see no longer.
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The gist of the Quiet Day addresses given to the Bristol branch of the Church Union, in the House of Prayer at Westbury-on-Trym, 16 April 2016.
The purpose of a “Quiet Day” is to be quiet! “Be still, and know that I am God,” says the Psalm (Ps 46.10). Elijah in his cave heard the Lord not in the earthquake, wind and fire, but in the still small voice of calm (cf. 1Kg 19.9-12). Nowadays we aren’t comfortable with silence- every public space seems to need some background noise, even if it is some nice music. But the Lord said through Isaiah, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” (Is 30.15) My job is to offer a few thoughts for you to reflect on; or (if you will) to ignore and think better thoughts. Although when asked for an over-all theme I opted for “The Risen Life”, what I am actually going to do is to think aloud about God as Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. This is not the same as Father, Son and Holy Ghost, because the whole Trinity is involved in creation, redemption and sanctification. It is the last of these that touches most explicitly on “the Risen Life”.
God the Creator
In the first chapter of Genesis, the Bible tells how God created heaven and earth. Obviously, this is not a scientific description of the processes by which the universe came into being. Rather, it is a story or parable about what God was up to, in creating this universe. The key points to notice are that God creates by his Word, by speaking, and that he creates human beings in his own image to supervise the world he has made. In fact, as scholars point out, what God is depicted as doing is building a house, or a temple, in which he himself will come to dwell. When we are told that, having finished his work, God “rested” on the seventh day, this means that he took up his abode in the temple he had built, with mankind as priest, leading the worship of creation.
The theme of God creating by his word, or by his wisdom, occurs elsewhere, for instance in the Book of Proverbs, and in the Psalms. Bishop Tom Wright characterises the belief of Israel as “Creational monotheism”. This is the claim that the God of Israel is the One God who has made heaven and earth and all that is in it- and is therefore not one entity within the created universe. God made the world “by his Word”- “He spoke and it was so,” “God said… and it was made.” God made the world by his Wisdom, which precedes all the works of creation, which proceeds from God himself and is as it were his “agent”. Word and Wisdom seem to be two ways of referring to God’s relationship with creation. We also hear of his “Breath” or Spirit bringing order out of chaos, and life out of what is inanimate.
It is this strand of belief that is developed in the New Testament, but with Jesus as the embodiment of God’s Word and Wisdom, and filled with his Spirit. When St Paul writes to the Colossians: “He (Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible… all things were created through him and for him…. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” (Col 1.15-19) he is deliberately echoing the language applied to Wisdom in Proverbs. This was written no more than thirty years after the crucifixion, and most scholars believe that Paul was already quoting a hymn that was already familiar to his audience. And the Gospel of John, written after Paul, but by one who (we are twice told) “saw and bore witness, and whose testimony is true,” opens with the majestic words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.”
I will pause here. Our first focus of meditation is of God as the wise and good Creator, who has made this world to be his own dwelling-place, and who has made us in his own image to look after it.
God the Redeemer
Last time, I spoke of God as the wise and good Creator, who has made this world to be his own dwelling-place, and who has made us in his own image to look after it. When God finished his work, he took his rest. The second chapter of Genesis tells of the creation of mankind in more detail (I don’t mean that it is a scientific description of the origin of mankind, any more than the previous chapter was a scientific description of the way the universe came to be. It is a theological interpretation of human origins, however they may have occurred).
The first thing to notice is that we are now back in “Day 6” of the original scheme. God has not yet finished his work, or taken his rest. In fact, you could say that the whole of the Old Testament is still concerned with “Day 6”. The second thing to notice is that already things start to go wrong. Human beings are made in the image of God, animated with his breath. They are marked off from all other species- Adam, the Primal Man, finds no suitable helper among them. God has to divide the first human, so that there can be partnership (and, of course, increase and multiplication).
The story of the Fall is the story of the abuse of mankind’s freedom, that gift in which much of the “likeness to God” consists. The story shows a grasp of human psychology. The Tempter approaches Adam indirectly. A direct assault might be resisted, but an approach through the one he loves, his “other self”, finds his weak spot. The fundamental temptation is to seek to be “like God, knowing good and evil”. Adam and his wife are already “in the likeness of God”, so this is an incitement to seize an autonomy to which mankind is not entitled, to decide for themselves what is good or evil, instead of accepting that there is a moral structure which they must accept or suffer the consequences. They fall, and the next chapters of Genesis show what those consequences are- their children murder each other, there is oppression and revenge, and lots more beside.
God could now just wipe out humanity and start again (the flood story shows that this is not God’s way). Human beings are his children, not his puppets, and if he is to restore his plan, including the role of humanity, he must go about it in another way. Abraham is called to trust God, to set out on a journey which will, through his descendants, be a blessing to the whole human race. Abraham’s family increases, but becomes enslaved in Egypt. The story of their rescue through the agency of Moses will be a paradigm of God’s rescue of all humanity from the slavery of sin.
I don’t need to go through the whole Exodus story. I draw attention only to the fact that most of the Law that accompanies the Covenant between God and his People is concerned with worship, and with the forgiveness of sin. A Tabernacle or Tent is made in which God himself accompanies his People. The various sacrifices and other rituals are concerned with thanksgiving and with holiness (a holiness conceived at this point in a rather crude way, but nevertheless the beginning of a moral journey that will take these tribesmen to a much more nuanced understanding of what God requires. Later on, the travelling tent is replaced with a stone Temple, associated closely with the Kingship of David and his dynasty. Both the Tabernacle and the Temple were “filled with the glory of the Lord,” the visible Presence of God.
The Temple was regarded as a microcosm of the universe, and God himself came and took up his dwelling there, among his People. But as in the wilderness years, so with the Kingdom: God gave a pattern for human beings to follow, but human beings (including the leaders, kings and priests) constantly fell away. God had warned Solomon, “Iif you turn aside from following me, you or your children, and do not keep my commandments and my statutes which I have set before you, but go and serve other gods and worship them, … this house will become a heap of ruins; and this is what happened: in due course Jerusalem was conquered and the Temple destroyed, while the leaders of the people were taken into Exile. After seventy years they returned and rebuilt: but there is no tradition that God’s glory was seen in the new Temple, as it had been in the old and in the Tabernacle before. Nor was the kingdom re-established. In that sense, the Exile continued, the people were not forgiven.
Throughout all these trials, Prophets assured the people that God would be faithful to his promises. He would return to dwell among his people. He would forgive their sins. He would give them a new Covenant, not on tablets of stone but written in their hearts. And the line of David would not fail: God would raise up an Anointed One (Messiah, Christ) who would inaugurate a New Age in which God’s plan would finally be fulfilled, and all the nations would be drawn in.
Of course, tragically, when the promises were fulfilled, when God did return to his people to forgive their sins, in the very person of the Messiah- He was not recognised! The more he spoke of his own humanity as the true Temple; the more he claimed the right to forgive sins outside the recognised rituals of sacrifice, the more he claimed that to belong to the renewed Kingdom it was necessary to follow him (even through suffering and death), the more offence he gave to those whose minds were closed, who sought a solution through nationalism and violence.
To summarise: God’s plan for the created universe was from the beginning that he should enter into his creation, as into his temple, and there abide with the people he had made in his own image. They would be the means whereby the universe would worship and glorify the Creator. This plan met a setback (of course foreseen by the Creator), in that human beings misused their freedom and refused their role. This was redeemed by the Creator entering his creation as the archetypal human- the true “Adam”. (This, many theologians have thought, was part of the original plan anyway). But as a consequence of human rebellion, and to repair its consequences, Christ chose the way of suffering: taking on himself the effects of human sin. Hence, as St Paul says, “Though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
In other words, unlike the Adam of Genesis, Jesus did not grasp at an equality with God which did not belong to his humanity (even though made in the likeness of God), but was totally obedient, even to the extent of suffering rejection and undergoing the degradation of crucifixion. Precisely because he is human, Jesus can reverse the process begun by disobedience, and set humanity back on its proper course. And it is in his humanity that Jesus is exalted and reigns as Lord over all creation.
St John expresses this in his own way in his Gospel. Pilate presents Jesus to the crowds saying, “Behold the man!” Behold the archetypal Man, the true Adam. Later he says, “Behold your King,” and “Shall I crucify your King?” Despite the protests of the chief priests, he insists on the inscription, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Whatever Pilate’s own thoughts or intentions, he stated the truth. Jesus is both the representative human being, and the King.
So Jesus was crucified, and as he finally dies he proclaims, “It is finished!”; and so he gave up his spirit, and entered his Sabbath rest. The echoes of Genesis are clear: when God had finished his work, he rested on the Sabbath. The crucifixion of Jesus marks the end of the sixth day of creation, and the beginning of the fulfilment of God’s purpose. What this means for us, we will think about this afternoon.
God the Sanctifier
God has created a good world, to be his temple and resting-place. He has created humankind to be his priests and caretakers of his world. Through his incarnation and Passion he has put right the damage done by mankind’s disobedience. By his resurrection he has inaugurated what the prophets called “the Age to Come”, the “Day of the Lord.” So where does all this leave us?
First, we need to recognise and understand God’s over-arching plan, to make a world in which he himself dwells, and in which we human beings have a central role. Secondly, to recognise and understand our own frailty and vulnerability, and the ways in which we have failed to fulfil our God-given role. Thirdly, to recognise and understand how God himself has dealt with this failure.
An important word is “justification”. To be “just”, theologically, is simply to be “in the right”- specifically, to be in the right relationship with God the Creator, and so with everything else. To be “justified” is to be put into that right relationship. A second important word is “faith”. The Greek “pistis”, and the Hebrew word it translates, means both trust, and the trustworthiness or faithfulness which it presupposes. Because God is faithful to his promises, our trust in him is what puts us in the right relationship with him. Hence “justification by faith”. Even when we are unfaithful to God, he is always faithful to us- or, rather, to his promises to us.
God has chosen to dwell among us by taking our human nature into himself, by becoming a human being, Jesus. Jesus IS God in human form. His human nature is, supremely, the Temple in which the fullness of God dwells bodily. The Old Testament spoke of God’s glory filling the Tabernacle and the Temple; after the Exile the Jews looked for God’s return to dwell among his people in a renewed Temple: JESUS IS WHAT IT LOOKED LIKE WHEN IT HAPPENED. This is what no-one had expected.
This is also what St Paul is talking about when he says that the Church is the Body of Christ and Temple of the Holy Spirit. The Church is the nucleus of the new humanity, healed and restored to its right relationship with God and creation, because it is inseparably united to Christ. This is true of the Church corporately, and of each individual Christian. We are “in Christ”, and Christ is “in us”.
Our Lady is our model. If Christ is the archetypal Adam, she is the archetypal Eve, his partner in the work of our redemption. By her obedience at the Annunciation she opened the way for God to become man, to initiate the new creation. In the beginning, God created by his Word: Let it be, fiat. At the Annunciation, Mary responds, “Let it be (fiat) unto me according to thy Word.” At Cana she tells the servants, “Do whatever hew tells you- do according to his word.” At the Cross, she accepts the role of mother in relation to the beloved disciple, and to all the disciples whom Jesus loves. As in the ancient story, Eve was formed from the side of Adam, so on the Cross the Church is formed from the pierced heart of Jesus- and it is made concrete in the mother and the disciple who stand beneath the cross.
All this has very practical consequences for us. To be a disciple of Christ is to accept responsibilities. First of all, it is the responsibility to be as Christ-like as we can. That is why St Paul, immediately before the words about Christ, being in the form of God, emptying himself to become obedient even to the death of the cross, says: “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus…”
Like Christ, we must be concerned for others rather than for ourselves. We must be of the same mind, have the same love, not acting from selfishness or conceit. And we must do this precisely because we are committed to Christ. He is our King, our Lord, and also our brother and our friend. We do this because this is our role in God’s creative plan, caring for his world and caring for one another. We do it because by doing it we give glory and thanksgiving to God himself, the Creator and Father of us all.
We are individually and corporately Temples of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is “the Breath of God.” In human beings, the breath is what makes the difference between a living person and a dead body. The Holy Spirit is what makes the difference between spiritual life and death. In Trinitarian theology, the Holy Spirit as third Person of the Trinity, is spoken of as the Love which binds Father and Son together, their mutual Gift to one another, which is then sent out into the hearts of human beings to share with them the very life of God.
So the risen life is simply life filled with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Divine Love. In the famous thirteenth chapter of is first letter to the Corinthians, St Paul spells out what love is not- not jealous or boastful, not irritable or resentful, not arrogant or rude. He also tells us what it is- patient and kind, faithful, hopeful, enduring. To the Ephesians he writes, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” To the Colossians he writes: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God…. Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience… and above all these things put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
When asked about the greatest commandment in the Law, our Lord simply quoted the Shema, recited by Jews every day: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first commandment; and the second is like: You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
In practice, our worship of God is expressed most perfectly in the Holy Eucharist. Here we unite ourselves to Jesus in his own self-offering to the Father. In union with him, we offer ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice to God our Father. We are Christ’s Body, the blessed company of all faithful people.
As Christians, we know who we are: the children of God, made in his image and likeness. But we must see that image and likeness in all our brothers and sisters, including those who do not know who they are (or not fully). What we do (or fail to do) to the least of them, we do (or fail to do) to our King. We are called to be holy, to be saints, and holiness is simply whole-heartedness in keeping God’s commandment of love. It is living in the conscious remembrance of who we are, and in whose image we are made.
And what of our failures? Our inadequacy in matching up to this ideal? Strangely, the most encouraging thing I have come across recently (although I first read it many years ago) is from Graham Greene’s novel, “The Power and the Glory.” Maybe you remember it, the story of the “whisky priest” in Mexico during the time of persecution of the Church in the last century. He is a typical Greene anti-hero, a drunkard with an illegitimate child: but whereas other, possibly better, priests have fled the country, and others even weaker have simply conformed to the law, he has continued to minister the sacraments, moving secretly from village to village. He is trapped by a bogus call to hear the confession of a dying man, a message that he realises is almost certainly a trap. He is arrested, tried, and sentenced to be shot. The only other available priest, who has conformed, refuses to hear his confession. As the morning for his execution dawns, “He was not at that moment afraid of damnation… He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty handed, with nothing done at all. It seemed to him, at that moment, that it would have been quite easy to be a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage…. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted- to be a saint.”
Of course, in Greene’s eyes (and mine) he is a saint, despite his failures. He has stayed, when others have fled or abandoned their ministry, because the people need him. He has allowed himself to be caught, because there might be a soul that needed him. He cares about the people; he is, in the last resort, faithful to his vocation and to God. And yet he reminds us that all of us, in the end, know that we are unprofitable servants. We can never give back to God more than he has given us. We are all “whisky priests”. In the end, we “go to God empty handed, with nothing done at all.” Even St Francis, at the end of his life, said to his brothers, “Let us now begin to serve the Lord; for up to now we have done nothing.” We should not despair: it is indeed quite easy to be a saint, if we will only let go of our self-reliance, and entrust ourselves to Jesus.
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A sermon preached at All Hallows, Easton, on Sunday April 24th, 2016
There was a delightful picture published yesterday- little Prince George on his rocking-horse, in his pyjamas and dressing-gown because he had been allowed to stay up late to say “Thank you” to Mr and Mrs Obama, who had given it to him when he was born. Yesterday was of course St George’s Day, the Prince’s namesake and our nation’s patron saint. He is usually depicted on a much bigger horse, slaying the dragon. I want to come back to him in a minute, but first a look at today’s Gospel.
These are words of our Lord at the last supper, just after Judas had gone out to betray him, and just before Peter swore he would even lay down his life for Jesus, a promise he would break only a few hours later, swearing that he did not even know Jesus. So this a very poignant moment. At this moment, only Jesus knows that these will be his farewell words to his friends.
First, he speaks of glory: “Now is the Son of man glorified, and in him God is glorified.” The word “glory” translates two difficult words, the Hebrew KaBoD and the Greek doxa. In Exodus, Moses asked God to show him his glory, but God replied, “I will pass before you and will proclaim before you my Name… and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” So Moses saw the glory only, as it were, from behind. In Isaiah, God said, “I am the Lord, that is my Name; my glory I give to no other.” Now Jesus says that God is glorified in the Son.
Like Moses, we see God’s glory as it were from behind- in the wonders of creation, for example, or in the lives of the saints. This is so to speak the “overspill” of God’s own glory, which is revealed supremely in Jesus, of whom St John says, “We beheld his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father.” Jesus says that this glory will be shown forth in what is about to happen to him, his crucifixion and death. Who would call that glorious, in human terms?
And straightaway he goes on to give his commandment of love: “Love one another, as I have loved you.” Glory and love are connected, because just as God’s glory is shown in his love for us, even to the cross, so we reflect that glory by our love for one another. “By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
So we come to St George. We know little about him, other than that he was a Roman soldier who became a Christian in Palestine, and was executed just before the year 300 at Joppa (where, as we heard, Peter had first received his call to take the Gospel to the Gentiles two and a half centuries earlier). The rest is legend, but it expresses a truth. Under the Roman Empire, Jews were exempt from military service, but Christians were not (unless they were of Jewish descent). A Roman soldier had to pledge total and undivided loyalty to the Emperor, so when George became a Christian, he refused, because now Christ was his King. Roman imperial ideology was totalitarian: only Caesar, and Caesar’s State, was supreme. That is why the Book of Revelation symbolised the Roman Empire and Caesar its head as a dragon that made war on the followers of Jesus. So you might say that, at one level, the dragon killed St George, just a Pilate crucified Jesus; but at another level, George defeated the dragon because in dying for Christ he shared Christ’s triumph over death itself.
George is a good patron for England, not least because he was not English! The country we live in is only a part of the island of Britain, and the people who live here are a mixed lot: Celts, Saxons, Normans and many other races. We all come from immigrant stock, if you go back far enough, but we all live in this beautiful land. Our Queen (long may she reign!), whose ancestors are every bit as mixed as anyone else’s- Scottish, German, Scandinavian- symbolises the unity in diversity of our nation. We do not, like many other nations, elect our Heads of State- we grow them. Little Prince George is just beginning a long training in how to embody the history and unity of our people, how to embody an idea of kingship as service which reflects the ultimate sovereignty of Christ. In due time, God willing, after his grandfather and father, he will be anointed and consecrated for that responsibility.
We all live in the same land, but what will make us one people is the love for one another that is our Lord’s commandment to us: not a request, not a piece of advice, a command. “Love one another, as I have loved you.” Revelation ends with the City of God (which is to say his people) adorned like a bride for her husband. Christianity is a love-story, the story of God’s love for his wayward people, whom he desires only to unite with himself. When God restores the world, there will be no more mourning or crying and pain. No more death, no more disobedience and sin. The old things will have passed away, and Love will make all things new.
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A sermon preached at All Hallows, Easton, on Passion Sunday, 14 March 2016
This week the prayer we are looking at is the “Prayer of Humble Access”, the one which begins “We do not presume,” and which we say just before Communion. But before I talk about that, I would like to step back and look at what we might call “the big picture”, the whole landscape of the Christian Faith in which this prayer fits in as one small part.
It was not by accident that the first Easter, the Resurrection of our Lord, coincided with the Jewish Passover. About fifteen hundred years before Jesus, the People of Israel were freed from slavery in the land of Egypt. Two weeks ago we sang with gusto the words, “When Israel was in Egypt’s land… Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land, tell old Pharaoh: Let my people go.” Those words have a resonance today, especially among those here whose own ancestors suffered the indignity and oppression of slavery. Liberation- the Jewish people never forgot the meaning of the Exodus, how it was celebrated with the blood of a lamb, how it marked their journey through the desert to the land promised to their ancestors.
The journey was longer than they expected, because even when they arrived in the Promised Land, their troubles were not over. They fell away from their God, the human kings they trusted in let them down, even the Temple in which they believed God himself dwelt among them was destroyed. They suffered exile, and further oppression, and still hoped for a more complete liberation, a better King, a renewed Temple in The Age to Come.
In the fullness of time, the Messiah came: Jesus of Nazareth. But the deliverance he brought, and the victory he won, was not in the way they expected- in fact it looked more like defeat. He was crucified by the Romans, the mark (as it would have been seen) of a failed Messiah, not a victorious one. It was the Resurrection that proved that God had accepted his self-sacrifice. Because the true victory was not over the Romans, but over Satan, and sin, and death itself. Liberation was not just for one people and nation, but for all humanity.
The night before he suffered, Jesus celebrated the Passover with his friends; but instead of a lamb, he took bread and wine and said, “This is my Body which will be given for you; this is my blood which will be shed for you. Take and eat and drink.” This was to be the way in which his followers would unite themselves with him in his self-offering to God. In the traditional Prayer Book language, after recalling that on the cross our Lord made (by his one oblation of himself once made), “a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice and oblation for the sins of the whole world,” we also “offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice unto thee, humbly beseeching thee, that all we who are partakers of this holy Communion may be fulfilled with thy grace and heavenly benediction.”
It is against this whole background that, as we draw near with faith, we pray: We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. But you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy. Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear Son, Jesus Christ and to drink his blood that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us. Amen.
What we are saying, here, is that in coming to the Table of the Lord, we are not relying on ourselves or our own powers and merits, but solely on the wonderful love and mercy of God, shown to us in Christ’s self-sacrifice on our behalf.
We don’t have to do anything ourselves to put ourselves right with God our Father. Jesus has done everything that is necessary. All we have to do is trust him, and follow him. We are weak and sinful, but God’s grace and compassion is far, far greater than our shortcomings. The souls and bodies that we offer and present to God are a pitifully inadequate gift in themselves; but as we unite ourselves with Jesus, with a real desire to become like him, then our souls and bodies are transformed and renewed. (The words don’t mean, by the way, that only our bodies are made clean by Christ’s body, only our souls washed by his blood- that is just the poetic way of speaking. Our whole selves are renewed by the whole self of Jesus.)
We eat and drink: simple human actions that express the truth that our lives are sustained and nourished by Jesus. Just in passing, I’ve been asked to make the point that “drink” does mean drink. In the Church of England we don’t believe in too much restriction on individual devotion. It is of course sufficient, in receiving the Sacrament, to receive under just one kind, in the hands or on the tongue, or to dip the Host into the chalice. But the Bible does speak of “drinking from this cup”, and that is preferable. But ultimately, the individual person must decide.
The whole point of what I am saying, however, is that when we say this beautiful prayer before communion, we are putting ourselves in God’s hands, not trusting in our own strength or virtue, but solely in his loving-kindness. The words “merciful” or “mercy” occur three times in the prayer. This is the Year of Mercy- but we should remember that being merciful does not mean being soft or indulgent. True mercy may involve a degree of strictness- it is not merciful to a drug-addict, for example, to give him the drug he craves. The surgeon may have to cut to remove the tumour. It is God’s very nature to be generous and compassionate. He is not out to punish us for our failings, he wants to heal our wounds. When we eat and drink in remembrance that Christ died for us, he comes to live in us, and we in him.