Monday, 30 April 2018

Jesus the Vine: Abide in my love.


A sermon preached at Guildford Cathedral on the Fifth Sunday of Easter. (Genesis 22, John 15.1-8.)

Jesus said, ‘Abide in me as I abide in you’. Alleluia.

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

You don’t have to venture to the hills of Burgundy, Bordeaux or even California to see vines growing. In our own diocese today you could go along the Hog’s Back or over to Denbies at Dorking, just as you could have done during the Roman occupation of this land, and see vines stretching across hills.

Viticulture is ancient and widespread, and is drawn upon in today’s gospel reading: ‘I am the vine; you are the branches’.

Jesus’ declares himself to be the vine and his disciples to be the branches; telling us that we are in an intimate, life-giving relationship with him, so that we may abide in him and he in us.

The vine branch draws its sustaining life from the trunk of the vine; so much so that it is impossible to tell exactly where the vine ends and the branch begins. In one sense they are so united, vine or branch is a false distinction.

This is a relationship of intimacy and life. Perhaps the only other time we know such intimacy is as an unborn child through the umbilical cord when we are grafted into the life of another. In the womb we are held in the waters of amniotic fluid, but now have been reborn through the waters of creation and new creation; of baptism.

Through that birth we are grafted into the source of all life in the name of Jesus Christ, in whom we hope, sustained in the power of the Holy Spirit.

This defines the character of our relationship with God as Christians.

For the Jewish people it is defined through Covenant and Torah; the way of life attends to a covenant relationship with God in which the Jewish people honour their relationship with the God of Abraham, who called them out of Egypt and gave them freedom in the Promised Land. That covenant is the way they remain faithful to God, trusting that God remains faithful to them.

In Islam the Muslim’s relationship with God is through submission to God in prayer, almsgiving and pilgrimage.

The character of the Christian's relationship with God is union with God in the power of the Holy Spirit in the Name of Jesus Christ. In other words, life flows into us from God, and our hopes, expectations and desires are met most fully in him such that we take on God’s character: this is what it means to dwell, remain, abide in God’s love; this is what it means to grow into the full stature of Christ.

Jesus describes this in the image of the vine. As Cyril of Alexandria puts it:

The Lord calls himself the vine and those united to him branches in order to teach us how important it is for us to remain in his love. By receiving the Holy Spirit, who is the bond of union between us and Christ our Saviour, those who are joined to him, as branches are to a vine, share in his own nature.
From a Commentary on St John’s Gospel

Abide in my love. Our first reading explored the nature of relationships human and divine. It is through the relationship of Abraham and Isaac, the relationship of Abraham and God. This is a deeply disturbing passage too. Is this really what God will ask of Abraham to sacrifice his own son? What of the boy’s mother? These questions and more that arise from this passage are important and not to be dismissed.

In relation to the Jesus the Vine the story of Abraham and Isaac points us to contemplate our own relationship with God in Christ and how we abide in his love.

As the Church Father, Origen, reminds us, the passage from Genesis echoes – or, rather, prefigures – the death of Jesus Christ. Like Isaac Christ is faithful to the Father’s word; he carries the wood for his own death as did Isaac; Isaac ascends a mountain as Christ ascended the hill of Calvary; like Isaac, Christ willingly lies down upon the instrument of his death. And that is where the parallels break down, for Christ himself is the Lamb of God, not caught in a thicket, but who does die upon the cross, so that we may abide in his love.

The relationship we are invited into through baptism is not the one that is required of Abraham in which he is put to the test. In fact it is the relationship prefigured by Abraham that the Lord will provide for us. God’s own son becomes the Lamb of God who's blood is shed for the life of the world.

As we abide in his love the beating heart of Christ pumps into us the lifeblood of God.

These rich themes are picked up in our understanding of how Christ’s lifeblood runs in our veins through the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist. A prayer offered quietly by the priest at the preparation of the chalice of wine captures it:

‘By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.’

The grapes of the vine come to fruition and then are crushed to extract their juice. This juice becomes life in the Eucharist, connecting us to the life-giving sacrifice of Christ. It’s put beautifully in a prayer at the preparation of the altar in Holy Week:

Jesus, true vine and bread of life,
ever giving yourself that the world might live,
let us share your death and passion:
make us perfect in your love.

So we abide, remain, dwell in God’s love so that we share his life as he shares ours. This takes us on a mystical and wonderful journey of seeking to become the person who God made us to be such that we pray, ‘That we may evermore dwell in him and he in us’.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018


This was an after dinner speech that I gave to the Guildford Cathedral bellringers in January 2017

Summonsed by bells: an appreciation of bell, bell ringing and bell ringers

First, on behalf of the Cathedral Chapter may I thank you all for your ringing at the cathedral this past year, and for all the ways you help the cathedral make its mark in, and connect with, the local community, and beyond.

May I thank you personally too for your kind invitation to join you for this splendid dinner.

I want to make a few remarks reflecting on being ‘summonsed by bells’ to borrow John Betjeman’s evocative phrase.

Bells have been in the news since your last annual dinner. As ringers around the country know, the bells of York Minster have been silenced. The reasons for this go beyond the practice of ringing bells http://www.archbishopofyork.org/articles.php/3546/york-minster-bell-ringers, but the story caught the popular imagination and reminded us of something of the significance of bells.

As the Canon charged with the Cathedral’s relationship with our own band of ringers I am acutely aware of that significance. Ironically perhaps, I was asked by the Dean to take on this role the day before the York story broke: would it be a poisoned chalice for me? Thankfully not! We enjoy good, fruitful and, I trust, mutually beneficial relationships, for which the cathedral is deeply grateful.

Change ringing, the pattern of ringing bells in sequences, is quintessentially English: nowhere else in the world is there that tradition.

That said, I also love something of the chaotic bells of the continent. A single insistent bell ringing all the way through, and then the frenzy builds up as all the bells join in one by one, dying down to the single, patient bell.

Change ringing, which I love too, is widely acknowledged to be a feature of both the English landscape and cityscape (think Oranges and Lemons).

To my regret my last parish only had one bell. The local lore had it that the bells were melted down by Cromwell to make cannon balls to besiege the local big house. As always the truth is rather less glamorous. The bells were sold to a neighbouring church in the late nineteenth century because of a weak tower.

Astonishingly there are those who object to the sound of bells.

Tales abound of new residents moving in next to medieval churches and finding to their horror that the custom of centuries endures, and the bells sound, and are loud.

Periodically a story hits the press, such as the irate neighbour who took an axe to a medieval church door in a vain attempt to silence the bells.

From time to time the Cathedral also gets intemperate emails from my flock, students at the University of Surrey, complaining about being woken early by bells; well, early for them perhaps.

Aside from the politics of the issue what caught media attention was that in York the bells would be silent for important times such as Christmas and ringing in the New Year. The first verse of Tennyson’s In Memoriam captures this:

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
   The flying cloud, the frosty light:
   The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

The final verse articulates the wider point that I want to make, that bells convey something more than just a nice sound wash over a nostalgic English scene.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
   The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
   Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

We ring bells on all sorts of occasions: to celebrate coronations, royal births and jubilees; to mark anniversaries and celebrations like weddings; to announce the beginning and end wars; we half muffle the bells to remember the dead. Above all bells call us to worship.

Buts bells are not just significant in England.

When the church bells in Bartella, Iraq http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-iraq-bartella-idUSKCN12L2HU started ringing again after two years of silence it was hugely significant. The bells were silenced by ISIL during their occupation of the town. The bells mark a presence, the presence of a community that seeks to witness both to its own presence and to its proclamation of something beyond itself.

Above all this is why I value bells. Bells have a deep seated place in Christian worship and society. After all, like people they are dedicated for use through ceremony akin to baptism. They are sacramental.

As the people of Bartella know they are not just a jolly sound that emanates from churches that like that sort of thing, as part of the heritage industry. Rather, they are alive, and calling people to prayer, alerting them to danger and rejoicing.

And those who ring them have a special place in the churches life usually hidden and unseen but saying to our society and congregations, ‘the church is here, visible and audible; come and see’.

Thank you for all you do in that missionary proclamation. And happy ringing for this coming year.

Monday, 16 April 2018

‘Bring my soul out of prison, that I may give thanks unto thy Name’


A sermon preached at Guildford Cathedral on the Third Sunday of Easter, 15th April 2018, at evensong.

‘Bring my soul out of prison, that I may give thanks unto thy Name’ (Psalm 142.9a)

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

Somehow a bird got into our house. For what seemed like an age it flew backwards and forwards, crashing, confused and frightened. It was not willing to be caught and therefore to be saved and delivered from the house. The windows were particularly cruel and deceptive: they gave the appearance and hope of escape, but it was an illusion of freedom.

They are parallels in human life of a feeling of being trapped, going to down blind or illusory alleys of possible freedom. We know the expression the ‘glass ceiling’ and its particular meaning, but we can all bump into glass doors that give the appearance of an exit but that obstruct our way.

Am I free to choose; do I have agency over my decisions and choices; am I ever free?

The People of Israel in Egypt knew the experience of being trapped and enslaved, as our first reading described.

Their experience is a human metaphor: they were enslaved to Pharaoh and the construction of his vanity projects.

Many today are enslaved to aspirations around wealth, influence, purpose or personal meaning.

Many feel trapped by economic incapacity or financial commitments; and there is the debilitating reality of the gross inequality of income across the country and globally.

Many feel enslaved to their own bodies, with the contradiction of wanting a perfect body, yet feeling that the body they are given somehow traps and confines their inner spirit where they locate their true self.

Many feel trapped by the spiritual aspirations and confined by what they regard as the strictures of religion.

Into this predicament this evening’s psalm gives voice to a deep feeling, ‘Bring my soul out of prison, that I may give thanks unto thy Name’ (Psalm 142.9a).

Deuteronomy commends the recollection of God’s saving works, redemption and deliverance.

This echoes the wise counsel of St Ignatius of Loyola and his Spiritual Exercises, in which he defines times of desolation and consolation. In a nutshell, a time of desolation is the experience and sense of estrangement from God; it is being enslaved to despair and the inability to see beyond our own predicament. Consolation is the awareness of the close proximity of God.

In consolation and desolation God is no closer or more remote, but our appreciation of him is. Desolation, in Ignatian terms, does not mean that everything in life is bad. We can be in desolation without knowing it; we can be in desolation when life is going well. After all, material comfort often means we feel far from God, if we think of God at all. Conversely, I can be in a time of consolation even in adversity: God can feel very close when times are toughest.

Ignatius counsels that, in times of desolation, when God feels far away, then we need to recollect what life was like when we knew him near. This recollection of God’s mercies and deliverance unlocks the prison door of our impoverished imaginations.

This is what Deuteronomy constantly reminds the People of Israel of. And being reminded of that prompts the people to gratitude, to the memory of God’s saving works and to the way of life that keeps them faithful to the Covenant.

Freedom, deliverance and salvation demand we have a memory. As the psalm also puts it: ‘I cried unto thee O Lord, and said “Thou art my hope, and my portion in the land of the living”’ (Psalm 142.6). This is the promise of the Resurrection of Christ, that by baptism we become part of the memory of God’s saving acts. The whole action of Christ’s resurrection is of deliverance, freedom and consolation.

It is in that capacity that Jesus says to the angel of the church in Smyrna, ‘Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction.’ (Revelation 2.10a,b.).

Faithfulness will be rewarded with the crown of life (Revelation 2.10c)

‘Bring my soul out of prison, that I may give thanks unto thy Name’

The prison of our souls cannot be escaped by economic leverage; for the key is the way of renunciation and letting go.

The prison of our souls is not a fanciful notion of spiritual freedom that eschews God’s commandments or living out the virtues and good habits of living; the key is in the liberating sanctification of daily embodied living.

The prison of our souls in not our bodies, for we are body and soul together; the key to stretch out our hands to take hold of the life that really is life (1 Timothy 6.19).

‘Bring my soul out of prison, that I may give thanks unto thy Name.’

Back to that trapped bird. I think that bird knew the meaning of that verse. There was a moment as the bird hopped to an open door when it felt the breeze, looked up – and I like to think it smiled! - it stretched out its wings and flew. As it flew it sang.

‘Bring my soul out of prison, that I may give thanks unto thy Name’ Alleluia.


Tuesday, 10 April 2018

The Angel of the Annunciation; the Angel of the Resurrection


Preached as a sermon at the Sung Eucharist for the Annunciation of the Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary, 10th April, 2018 at Guildford Cathedral.

The angel of the Lord brought tidings to Mary and she conceived by the Holy Spirit. Alleluia.

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

The Annunciation to Mary 
The arrival of Gabriel - whose name means ‘God is my strength’ - begins an encounter between the archangel and Mary that we know as the Annunciation, the announcement of the Incarnation of the Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

‘God is my strength’ could also be Mary’s motto as she says ‘yes’ to taking on a way of potential shame and ignominy and yet a way of willing response to the Creator God, her maker and redeemer, and ours too, drawing strength from the angel’s words, ‘Do not be afraid’ (Luke 1.30).

What Gabriel announces is the Incarnation in hidden form; the Eternal Word of God dwells deep in the womb of Mary gestating.

What Gabriel and the multitude of the heavenly host proclaim in nine months’ time is the birth of the Eternal Word, now unhidden, so that we proclaim, ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory… full of grace and truth’ (cf Luke 2.8-14 and John 1.14, ).

Today inaugurates the Incarnation of the Word and shapes the lines of the Nicene Creed speaking of Christ, for which customarily one bows because of its enormity:

For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven,
was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and was made man.

We bow down to the Divine Name, at which name ‘every knee should bend’ (Philippians 2.10), who nestles in his mother’s womb, as one of us, and yet is also ‘eternally begotten of the Father’ (Nicene Creed).

The Annunciation of the Lord to Mary is the definitive encounter between a human being and God and the exemplar of how to respond.

Mary has been called Mother of the Church, because where Mary is found in the Gospels is where the whole Church - you and I - is called to be.

In the Holy Gospels Mary is found pointing others to Christ: ‘do whatever he tells you’ she says (John 2.5); Mary stands patiently at the foot of his cross, with the Beloved Disciple (John 19.25b-27), the foundational relationship of fellowship and love in the Church; Mary waits attentively and expectantly for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, her prayer, with them, shaping the nine days of intercession between Ascension Day and Pentecost (Acts of the Apostles 1.14); and in The Revelation to John Mary, identified with the Church, is the woman clothed in the sun, pregnant and bringing a child to birth (Revelation 12.1-6).

Where Mary is - in proximity to Christ - we are called to be.

Also the manner of her open and active response to Gabriel is one the whole Church – you and I –are called to make, so that the power of the Most High will overshadow the Church to grow into the image and likeness of Christ.

This prompts us to prayer and, with Mary, to ponder these things in our hearts (cf Luke 2.19; 2.51).

Each day the bell of this Cathedral Church rings out before morning and evening prayer in a pattern known as the Angelus. It heralds a prayer that uses the Annunciation encounter as its model. The first words of the prayer, Angelus domini in Latin, recall the angel of the Lord coming to Mary and her conception by the Holy Spirit.

The Angelus continues by focusing on Mary’s obedient response, in spite of the cost, ‘let be unto me according to your word’; and then moves to the heart of the matter: ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’. The prayer is interspersed with the Hail Mary, which is a fusion of Gabriel’s salutation, and Elizabeth’s declaration, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of your womb Jesus’ (Luke 1.28, 42).

This young woman, of which prophets speak, who will bear Emmanuel – God with us – receives, through Gabriel, strength from on high: ‘God is my strength’.

On this day of the Annunciation the Church prays to know that ‘God is my strength’.

We pray that we may respond to the Lord after the example of Mary, so that the way in which Mary responds shapes and prompts our own response to God, as a Church and as persons baptised in his Name.

We do this to the end that Christ gestates within us and that we bring Christ to birth in the world. This is the task of the Church. This is about an intense knowing of who Christ is - Incarnate, Crucified, Risen and Ascended - who prays for us at the right hand of the Father.

God calls: and the Holy Spirit makes possible what is to be.

The proper date of celebrating the Annunciation is 25th March, exactly nine months before Christmas, the length of a pregnancy. This year it fell on Palm Sunday so is transferred to today, following Easter Week.

It is not every year, then, that the Annunciation falls in Eastertide; so this year we can reflect too on the presence of the Angel of the Resurrection. At the empty tomb it is an angelic presence that declares Do not be afraid: he is risen (cf Matthew 28.5-6; Mark 16.5; Luke 24.4-6; John 20.12).

Can we, as a Church, draw to courage, heart and strength from that angelic declaration? We are successors of the first witnesses of the resurrection; heirs too of the promise of the archangel to Mary. We worship with angels and archangels, with Mary, apostles, martyrs and all the company of heaven.

The angel has left the doorway of the empty tomb to point out Christ in the world; in places of darkness and despair, in places of celebration and rejoicing, indeed throughout the cosmos, the whole created order.

And the challenge is to see him in bread and wine, in his holy word, in one another, in the broken, disfigured and unlovely. This is what the Annunciation unleashes, seeing Christ - Incarnate, Crucified, Risen and Ascended - in all things and all people: for he is ‘all in all’ (Ephesians 1.23; Colossians 1.17)

Tonight in this sacrament we receive Christ into the depths of our lives, his body absorbed into our bodies, nestling deep within us. Every time we receive the Body of Christ, we are receiving what Mary received through the message the angel brought: Christ gestating within us, so that we come to share the intimate knowing of Christ that blessed her life.

The angel of the Lord brought tidings to Mary and she conceived by the Holy Spirit. Alleluia.


Monday, 2 April 2018

Walking in step with the Crucified & Risen Lord


First preached as a sermon at Guildford Cathedral on Easter Day 2018 at Solemn Evensong & Procession.
Luke 24.13- 35 ‘The Walk to Emmaus’

Alleluia. Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia.

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

One of the delights and excitements of the English beach holiday – apart from guessing the weather – is going rock-pooling. And when you wear shoes a lot walking barefoot on rough ground brings you quickly to realise just how soft and pampered your feet are. I have childhood memories at the beginning of beach holidays treading through rock pools being scratched by barnacles, shivering in cold sea water, jabbed by rocks, burned by hot sand.

Tonight on the shiny floors of this cathedral there will be an Easter procession; not a journey of penitence but a journey of rejoicing. Holy Week and Easter is characterised by a surfeit of journeying – Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, the Way of the Cross; and just last night the confirmation candidates journeyed to the font to recall their baptism, echoing the journey of the people of Israel from their slavery in the darkness of Egypt, to freedom, light and liberty in the Promised Land. Led by incense and making our way to the Paschal Candle our procession deliberately evokes the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire that led the people of Israel from their slavery to freedom. All these journeys are an embodiment of a life metaphor.

So now a new day has dawned: Christ is risen! And still journeys. The journeys of the first Easter morning are of the myrrh bearing women, coming to anoint Jesus’ dead body, and of Mary Magdalene coming to weep at the tomb. From the empty tomb Mary begins the first Christian missionary journey as she goes to pass on the news of the resurrection to the Apostles, what we know now as the apostolic faith. Mary hands on that which reaches us today. Peter and John respond by racing to the tomb. Tonight’s Easter procession is a response in movement around the Cathedral: it is a rather more stately echo of the journeys of the women, of Mary Magdalene and of Peter and John - with no overtaking - to and from the tomb: we make their journey tonight.

Easter can seem like we have finally got it, we have arrived at our destination; journey’s end. And all too often the resurrection is told as simply the happy ending of a sad story. But the resurrection of Jesus is a junction not a terminus; it is a point of departure that takes us on and beyond our expectation. It recalibrates our vision and the possibilities of God; we are left asking ‘who is this Jesus? Where is this Jesus?’ and we see him and find him in the simplicity and depth of the breaking of bread; which is itself, day by day, a glimpse of resurrection and then we see him no more.

In his poem ‘Emmaus’ Archbishop Rowan Williams describes a stranger – Jesus - as completely out of step with our familiar world. Jesus walks to a different rhythm, padding in the gaps between our uncertain footsteps, across the terrain and contours over which we are called to walk, like the feet of the little boy who has removed his shoes to walk across the rock pools.

Before the Resurrection we were shod with the expectation that death is the final word, that we can live only for ourselves, that we are essentially alone. We take off those shoes to walk barefoot, walking the same terrain as before but, like with shoes off in the rock pools, with a more vibrant appreciation of God’s abundant life, our bonds with others, and that we live no longer for ourselves but for Christ. Tonight we begin resurrection walking again, tentatively and yet attentively, walking with him, step by step into his rhythm, he who is everything we are, and everything we are to become.

Those two dejected disciples walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus in the dimness of dusk and with uncertain footsteps. They walked into the dark night with the stranger who walks with them and breaks bread for them, as he has before, and now they walk on and into the light.  

Alleluia. Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia.


Monday, 19 March 2018

Passion Sunday: Show me things I've never seen before


First preached as sermon at Guildford Cathedral on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Passion Sunday, 2018.
Gospel reading: John 12.20-33

‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’ (John 12.21).

'What do you see?'
Many people are familiar with a trip to the optician. Famously on the wall there are letters of ever decreasing sizes to test your sight. But we know that sight does not always equate to vision and seeing things on a deep level.

Seeing, recognising and believing are constant themes throughout St John’s gospel.

The climax of the Prologue to St John’s Gospel, speaks of the Word being made flesh, Jesus Christ, who dwelt among us ‘and we have seen his glory’. John continues ‘No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father who has made him known’. (John 1.14, 18).

John also deals in signs, visual pointers to the profound truth of Jesus Christ’s mission and purpose. Famously he records seven signs – a perfect number – and says there were many more: water changed into wine (John 2.1-11) showing the coming hour of transformation in Jesus Christ; the healings of the royal official's son in Capernaum (John 4:46-54) and the paralysed man at Bethesda (John 5:1-15); the multiplication of loaves and fishes to feed the five thousand (John 6:5-14); Jesus walking on water (John 6:16-24); and the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45). All signs to be seen to point to Jesus’ divine power. They ask us, ‘now do you see?’

The remaining sign is of the man born blind whose sight is restored such that he can see who Jesus really is (John 9:1-7). The story culminates in Jesus speaking to the man whose sight has been restored saying,

‘Do you believe in the Son of Man? He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him. (cf John 9.35b-41)

Seeing in John’s Gospel is far more than a visual reception of data and a function of the retina; this seeing is seeing with the eye of the heart. What I coin deep-sightedness.

It is this sort of seeing that Mary Magdalene has when at first she fails to recognise Jesus through her tears on the Day of Resurrection but on hearing Christ speaks her name she sees, as says ‘Rabbouni, teacher’ (John 20.1-18). And Mary Magdalene the first missionary, the Apostle to the Apostles, proclaimed, ‘I have seen the Lord’ (John 20.18).

The apostle Thomas sees with his eyes but not with his heart, and he seeks visual evidence of Jesus’ resurrection: but then a moment of recognition comes and he says ‘My Lord and my God’ (John 20.24-29).

***

So, those Greeks appear saying to Philip, ‘Sir we would see Jesus’. Well, what have they come to see? What do we see in Jesus? What does their question demand of us if we place ourselves in the shoes of Philip the disciple when someone else says to you, ‘I want to see Jesus? There is a missional edge to their request.

Quite what the Greeks made of their seeing Jesus, history does not relate. It is in St Mark’s gospel that the centurion gazes at the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, on the cross and declares, ‘Truly this is God’s son’. Many did see and believed; many saw Jesus and saw nothing beyond.

‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’. This notion of seeing is important. The Greeks arrive to see Jesus, and their own mother tongue, Greek, has a variety of words that mean ‘to see’.

Their request to see could be from scorpion from which we get the word ‘scope’, as in telescope and microscope. Were they scoping Jesus? Getting the measure of him? Assessing what it would mean to follow him?

‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’. It could be, that far from be intrigued and seeing Jesus to get the measure of him, that there was a different edge. Their request ‘to see’ could be another Greek word sk√©ptesthai from which we get the word ‘sceptic’. It was true then, as it is now, that there are sceptics about who Jesus Christ is. They may want to be entertained or to dismiss, as in Herod’s request to see Jesus (Luke 9.9). Sometimes, though, even scepticism can lead people on the journey of encounter with him; that’s true even today of people who come to see Jesus sceptically and find their lives turned around by him. When Jesus encounters two of John the Baptist’s slightly sceptical disciples he says, ‘Come and see’ (John 1.39)

‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’. The word John’s gospel actually uses is idein which means ‘to see’, in the sense of ‘to visit’ or ‘to meet with’. But it can also mean, in the context of John’s gospel, ‘to believe in’. ‘Sir’, they could be saying to Philip, ‘we wish to believe in Jesus’.

In meeting them Jesus he doesn’t say, “well, here I am have a good look”. Rather he unveils what is hinted at in the Prologue to John – and we have seen his glory –as Jesus declares that now his hour has come. And what will be seen is his glorification, the glorification of the cross, when he is lifted up from the earth.

Window in Guildford Cathedral - South Aisle
In the wilderness the Israelites who were being infested by poisonous serpents could be cured by looking at a pole erected by Moses (it features in the window on the south side of the Cathedral nave). Therein lay their healing and restoration. The cross is the new sign to be gazed upon for salvation. That is the image Jesus is drawing upon as he speaks of the Son of Man lifted up. (cf also John 3.14-21)

This takes us to Good Friday and the Proclamation of the Cross and we hear the haunting verse of Lamentations, ‘Is it nothing to you all you who pass by. Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow’ (Lamentations 1.12a). We hear that as we gaze upon the stark wood of the cross. Not just a bit of carpentry but the sign of our hope and salvation.

It is this deep-sightedness that enables St John Chrysostom to say of Jesus on the cross: ‘I see him crucified; I call him King’.

***

Today is Passion Sunday. It is the day in the Church’s year, before the intensity and drama of Holy Week, on which we begin to contemplate more intensely what we see in the glorification of Jesus Christ and ‘behold the wood of the cross, whereon was hung the Saviour of the world’, as the Good Friday liturgy puts it.

As the time of his Passion draws near may we consider how we see Jesus Christ, and behold God in all people, moments and things. Passion Sunday is a spiritual optician’s check-up (from another Greek word optikos "of or having to do with sight and seeing’).

My prayer is that believer and enquirer alike may cry out to the Lord: ‘I wish to see Jesus: show me things I’ve never seen before’. Amen.

© Andrew Bishop, 2018

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Guildford Cathedral Lent Talks - Faith through Art: Storm


Guildford Cathedral Lent Talks - Faith through Art: Storm
This talk given as part of a series on Thursday 1st March

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

The storm is a great metaphorical image. The storm represents a variety of things: amongst other things tumultuous times in our lives; the desire for serenity and peace when there is none; it represents our hope that we will come through the other side intact and not be dashed against the rocks. For Christians as much as anyone the storm is a real threat: we know that the death of a loved one; a dreadful medical diagnosis; unforeseen financial loss; or loss of mental faculties all create storm conditions in our lives. Metaphorically Churchill spoke of the Gathering Storm, the Americans unleashed Operation Desert Storm upon Iraq.

So what might we say of the storm? The psalmist is pretty emphatic:

1 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. 2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, 3 though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam (Psalm 46.1-3)

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble…

+

‘Northeaster’ (1895) Winslow Homer
Winslow Homer’s 1895 painting called ‘Northeaster’, named after the prevailing winds on the coast of Maine on the eastern seaboard of the United States, which hangs in the Met in New York, luminously captures the relentless pounding of the waves: the waves of the storm brewing and swelling out in the deeps before racing into towards the coast; waves that break over rocks, smashing into them; and then, in those moments between the waves, the foamy backwash that hints at the outbreak of tranquillity, a sense which is quickly superseded by the next wave breaking.

The power of the storm cannot be diminished literally or metaphorically. The surging primeval image of the storm is far from a tranquil one, and yet this tranquillity is what I want to reflect on this evening. This is not to deny the nature of the storm, but rather to suggest that even in the destructive force of a storm is redemptive power, and that we see this in the Stilling of the Storm, attested to in Matthew (8.23-27), Mark (4.35-41) and Luke’s (8.22-25) gospels.

Logo of the World Council Churches
Just as the storm can be used allegorically, so can the boat. The church has often represented as a boat. The emblem of the World Council of Churches is a boat. The Roman Catholic Church is sometimes known as the Barque (b-a-r-q-u-e) of Peter. This can be an allegory of the embattled church fending off the storms of the secular world, or it can be a more positive image of Peter putting out into the deep, as Jesus says, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your net for a catch’ (Luke 5.4). This is a missional image of the church sailing into the world, vulnerable and yet with something most precious to offer, an ark of hospitality that the nations may enter two by two, and a sign to the peoples of the redemptive power of God that following the destruction of a flood a rainbow signals hope and new promise.

This evening’s reflection takes us into some storms and then to the tranquillity that Jesus Christ brings after the storm and even in the midst of it, embodied in the Sleeping Christ.



Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth (1842) JMW Turner
First let us think more about storms. In art, few people ‘do’ storms better than J.M.W. Turner. Painted in 1842, this painting has two titles. One is the rather topical Snow Storm. The fuller title is Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth.

This painting captures powerfully the disorientating swirl of the storm. Turner is showing us how nature overwhelms even the most cutting edge technology of its day, in this case a steam boat. Nothing is immune from the damage of the storm. We see it regularly now in footage of tropical storms and cyclones, and on the mainline at Dawlish station a couple of years ago.

Those storms most often affect the poor. But the rich are not immune to them either. Storms are inclusive and non-discriminatory! They afflict any people, properties or communities in their path.

We cannot tame the raging of the sea, but we can now perhaps harness it. And this brings a good ecological lesson to us as a species. We are not against nature, but as part of God’s creation, we are caught up in it, albeit we are given insights to make use of it such that it can help us. We need to grow in wisdom too, so as not to confuse harnessing the power of nature with seeking to make it our servant or thinking that we are invulnerable and unassailable.

It is famously said that Turner conceived this image while lashed to the mast of a ship during an actual storm at sea. According to the notes at the Tate Gallery this seems to be nothing more than fiction, but the story has endured as a way of demonstrating Turner’s full-blooded engagement with the world around him. The story conveys the reality that it is only the one placed at the centre of the storm can gauge its full inner impact. It reminds us too that storms make us vulnerable.

Watching the storm from the harbour is not the same as being caught in the storm. I find that looking at Turner’s storm - such is the swirling, racing, blurred vision - that I am not sure if the viewer is safely on land watching the steam boat seek the haven of the harbour, or is out at sea looking back at the steamboat approaching the harbour. In which case is the view from the lifeboat, or even the debris in the water? How often do we look at the storm in another person’s life as if we could not be touched by it? The answer is that we don’t want to be, because storms frighten us.

Irrespective of one’s perspective storms are destructive. The storm begs grave questions of our own sense of our circumstances and our ability to control them. The Tate notes describe what Turner was trying to do in this picture, ‘Turner painted many pictures exploring the effects of an elemental vortex. Here, there is a steam-boat at the heart of the vortex. In this context the vessel can be interpreted as a symbol of mankind’s futile efforts to combat the forces of nature’.

Stilling of the Storm on Galilee (1633)
Rembrandt

Rembrandt likewise can ‘do a storm’ if this painting of the Stilling of the Storm on Galilee of 1633 is anything to go by. Here we see the column of water rising up tossing the boat on the Sea of Galilee in the air, almost exalting or elevating it. It looks like a Tornadic waterspout which, I can assure you, is the phenomenon of a tornado over the sea which sucks up a great pillar of water into the air. It also evokes the Red Sea being torn apart, with banks of water either side, so that the Israelites can make their way through the sea on foot.


The lack of control that these experienced sailors have is terrifying. Ropes are flying off. The bow is being beaten by a colossal wave. Hands are grabbing at the torn, loose sails: if they go in the water the boat is doomed to capsize and go down. The sailors are holding on for dear life. The figure in yellow on the left is even trying to assuage the storm, holding on with one hand and raising a hand in vain in a desperate attempt to stop the wave striking or to placate the storm.
Detail - Stilling of the Storm on Galilee (1633) Rembrandt

Look at the bow, which interestingly is where Rembrandt puts the light, and hear these words from Psalm 107:

23 They that go down to the sea in ships : and occupy their business in great waters;
24 These men see the works of the Lord : and his wonders in the deep.
25 For at his word the stormy wind ariseth : which lifteth up the waves thereof.
26 They are carried up to the heaven, and down again to the deep : their soul melteth away because of the trouble.
27 They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man : and are at their wits' end.

The light is at the bow. Yet there is something going on in the shadows and deeper colours of the stern. Here the figures are gathered around Jesus who is now awake. Gone are the anguished, desperate faces of the bow, but rather there are calm, almost smiling figures. Granted there is one poor character suffering from seasickness, but the rest are taking on the assurance that they are saved. It is as if Psalm 107 is narrating this scene:

28 So when they cry unto the Lord in their trouble : he delivereth them out of their distress.
29 For he maketh the storm to cease : so that the waves thereof are still.

Jesus is wakened and will rebuke the storm making it ‘to cease’, and ‘the waves thereof are still’. It is the oldest figure who retains some kind of serenity, other than Jesus himself. He is holding the rudder; he has been in storms before and has the wisdom to know that they pass. But is he looking wistfully too, having seen former shipmates go overboard, drown and be washed away?

One mariner, in blue, on the port side, with one hand on a rope, is running his hand through his hair gazing beyond to what we can only assume is the safety of the calm waters and the Fair Havens.

Psalm 107 again:

30 Then are they glad, because they are at rest : and so he bringeth them unto the haven where they would be.
31 O that men would therefore praise the Lord for his goodness : and declare the wonders that he doeth for the children of men!
32 That they would exalt him also in the congregation of the people : and praise him in the seat of the elders! Psalm 107.23-32

Jesus Christ has been awakened from sleep and is rebuking the storm. As St Mark puts it, He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! be still”. Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.’ (Mark 4.39).

Is this the still small voice, the silence after ‘the earthquake, wind and fire’? Is God in this voice?

The figure who intrigues me most is the one who is barely visible, although he has been spotted! He has gone into the hold. In this Rembrandt is echoing Jonah’s behaviour on the boat he was on that was caught in a storm as he fled to Tarshish.

4 But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. 5Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. 6The captain came and said to him, ‘What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.’ (Jonah 1.4-6)

Jonah hid from the storm and wouldn’t face it. He turned in on himself and the storm, allegorically, is of his own making.

In Moby Dick the local pastor, Father Mapple, preaches on the scourge of the whale and takes Jonah as his text. He judges Jonah’s flight and behaviour in the storm very harshly. Mapple sees Jonah as ‘most contemptible and worthy of all scorn’.Mapple then describes the chaotic scene on the boat and says ‘every plank thunders with trampling feet right over Jonah’s head; in all this tumult, Jonah sleeps his hideous sleep’. Mapple’s judgment is harsh. Jonah is acting as everyman; you and me. What what we do see in the Jonah story is that the storm will catch up with us at some point.

11 Then they said to Jonah, ‘What shall we do to you, that the sea may quieten down for us?’ For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. 12He said to them, ‘Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quieten down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.’ 13Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them. 14Then they cried out to the Lord, ‘Please, O Lord, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.’ 15So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. 16Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.

The tranquillity that Jonah seeks is transitory. He cannot escape the storm. This takes us to the storm on the Sea of Galilee. In the Gospels Jesus isn’t described as being in the hold but he is asleep. As Mark reports:

‘But Jesus was asleep in the stern asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace, be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm’. (Mark 4.38-39)

This is what we seek in the storm, and this is perhaps the most difficult and challenging aspect. Storms don’t just cease in our experience. They didn’t just stop for the experienced fishermen on the boat with Jesus. Rather than deploy their skill and experience they turn to Jesus to awaken him to their plight.

This was an urgent plea: don’t you care? Why are you asleep. I often speculate that they woke him up using the words of the Coverdale psalms from the Book of Common Prayer: ‘Up Lord, why sleepest thou? Awake and be not absent from us for ever’. (Psalm 44.23)

Icon : The Stilling of the Storm
This icon conveys both storm and tranquillity. It lacks the realism of Rembrandt, or the fog and confusion of Turner, but it’s trying to tell us something different. It shows the divine power of Jesus Christ the Word made Flesh, one with the Father, the Creator. He has it in his power to awaken and rebuke the storm. So we see Christ in two places in the icon, asleep and rebuking the storm. He stands and rebukes the storm, represented, or personified in the figure on the shore blowing the wind through a pipe. We know the gospel scene and the icon invites us to ponder its different aspects. On the left we see Jesus asleep in the stern.

The question posed is why Jesus was asleep in the storm. Is this the most hopeless sign of the human predicament hinted at by Turner, that we are caught up in the vortex of the storm with no agency or possibility of redemption?

The response to that is best put, I think, by Ben Quash, Professor of Theology and Art at King’s College, London, when he suggests that '[Jesus'] sleep is not an expression of casualness; it is an expression of  peace. He rouses from the serenity of sleep and then restores a calm evocative of the Sabbath rest’.[1]

It is that peace that we seek in the midst of the storms and that we awaken as we call upon Jesus in prayer.

I weave a silence on to my lips
I weave a silence into my mind
I weave a silence within my heart
I close my ears to distractions
I close my eyes to attractions
I close my heart to temptations

Calm me as You stilled the storm
Still me, keep me from harm
Let all the tumult within me cease
Enfold me, Beloved, in your peace.

            David Adam, Edge of Glory


[1] Ben Quash, Abiding. (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012). p. 205.