Monday, 5 February 2018

Jesus Christ: the Eternal Word born in time

A sermon preached at Guildford cathedral on the Second Sunday before Lent (4th February 2018). Readings: Proverbs 8.1,22-31; Colossians 1.15-20; John 1.1-14.

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

I wonder how you measure time? How long did the singing of the Kyrie eleison last this morning? Unless you had a stopwatch out – and I hope you didn’t! - you couldn’t tell me. You might say, ‘well it’s a stupid question, just get soaked up in it, it doesn’t actually matter. It’s wrong to time it’. And that in a sense is my point. When it comes to talking about time we get in a tangle when we talk, on the one hand, about its objective measurement and, on the other, what it meant or how it felt.

Clock in Guildford High Street,
public measuring of time
This is significant when it comes to our religious experience. Greek, the written language of the New Testament and of the formative thought of Christianity, has two distinct words for our one English word for ‘time’.

The first word chronos is where we get the word, ‘chronology’. Chronos is ordered measured time: it is the ticktock of the clock. We tend to measure and evaluate our lives in chronological language: a long life, a short career, over in a second.

The other word is kairos. This word is less measurable but no less intense. Kairos is the moment fulfilled. It associates perhaps more with quality of life than its bald measurement. Kairos describes a life well lived; a piece of music resonant with beauty despite its length; it is the fullness that a smile can bring or act of kindness. Chronology is irrelevant to kairos like this. You see it in the Psalms, ‘A thousand years in thy sight are but as a moment, a watch that passes in the night’ (Psalm 90.4). As Roger Federer said on winning another grand slam event, ‘age is only a number’.

To unpack time in these two Greek words is helpful as we consider the wonder and mystery that our scriptures unfold before us today. All this is focused in the incarnation of the Word of God, where the Eternal Word becomes flesh and lives as one of us. It is where the chronos of time meets the fulfilment time of kairos.

In our gospel reading the chronos of world history is graced with the kairos of the life of Jesus Christ. His birth in history, born of the Virgin Mary, is on one hand deeply irrelevant to who he is, the very presence, wisdom and eternal Word of God; and yet without entering into human experience lived out through chronological time his incarnation would not touch us at all; he might as well be a phantom and not the Word Made Flesh.

So in the Incarnation, the taking flesh, of the Word of God, Christianity deals with a huge paradox: our human existence is caught up in things eternal, and the things eternal are intimately entwined in the daily existence of being human.

The eternal Word has entered human time; has entered the rhythm of the days – and there was morning and there was evening – has entered the rhythm of the human heartbeat; has entered the rhythm of the music of our lives.

This is what ‘Ordinary Time’, this season of the Church Year holds before us. We have celebrated the great mysteries of the Incarnation - in the Christmas, Epiphany, Candlemas cycle - and now the liturgical year pivots towards the mysteries of Christ’s temptation, passion, death, resurrection and ascension, in Lent, Holy Week and Easter all sealed with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

The liturgical year appears to deal in chronos but in fact deals in kairos time and unfolds the mysteries of Christ: as ‘Ordinary Time’ ticks by kairos moments abound.

Finding kairos in the chronos of daily life is what Christian living, life in the Holy Trinity, is all about. This is profound stuff.

This takes us to consider wisdom and the book of Proverbs. Proverbs 8, this morning’s first reading, is a seminal passage for Christians as we look to understand the promise of the coming Son of God. It matters little if this passage was written in the 4th century BC, which is probable, or the day before Jesus was born; the point of it is that it testifies to the presence of wisdom as integral to God’s creation.

This is what might be called a diachronic view, which says that the coming of God’s wisdom is sensitive to the rhythms of human history and is not locked in a chronological moment. In other words, God’s wisdom runs like a thread through human existence and is to be sought now, as much as it was 2,500 years ago.

The book of Proverbs sets our task for Ordinary Time: delight in the Lord is the beginning of wisdom! This is about navigating the pitfalls, traps and snares of the world wisely and in the way and Spirit of Jesus Christ.

Wisdom is not equal to God, wisdom is not god, wisdom was ‘created [by God] at the beginning of his work’ (Proverbs 8.22). Wisdom opens up to us the delights of God and God’s delight in us. Proverbs tells us that wisdom is woven into everything that God made. As we understand the Holy Spirit blowing where it will (John 3.8), the Spirit blows this wisdom through the fabric of the world and our lives to inspire, lead and direct us wisely.

St Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, Jesus Christ is ‘the wisdom of God’. His is the wisdom that leads, guides and encourages us. But this is sometimes misunderstood. The Arian heresy of the 4th century asserted that Jesus Christ was a creature, created like you and me, created like wisdom. This makes him less than God, subordinate to the Creator: wise and kind, a really, really good bloke, really obedient to God’s will, but not God our Saviour. Our creed counters this quite plainly ‘he was begotten, not made’: not created.

And this matters ‘for us and our salvation’. We place our hopes in ‘the Word Made Flesh’, ‘the firstborn of all creation’ (Colossians 1.15) because, to quote our second reading, ‘in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace though the blood of his cross’ (Col. 1.20).

Christ: chronos and kairos; born in time as one of us; yet eternal through the ages of ages. What wonder, what mystery, and to every who receives him, who believe in his name, he gives power to become children of God: therein lies our dignity, our hope and our salvation, that send us out so all may see and know his grace and truth.

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

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Candlemas: light & darkness; flames & ash

First preached as a sermon at Guildford Cathedral, 2nd February 2018

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

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple is perhaps one of the most beautiful, intriguing and mystical of the festivals of the Church.

It is also bittersweet.

It is - all at the same time - a time of rejoicing and recognition, of the fulfilment of longed for hopes and warnings of pain ahead.

What a claim it is that the simple candle can catch the beauty and mystical depths of the Presentation of Christ, reflected in the name Candlemas.

The candle gives light. Light shining in the darkness connects us to the opening of St John’s gospel and the promise of the triumph of light which the darkness cannot overcome. (John 1.5)

How will Jesus Christ the light of the world guide us through the darkness? Candlemas doesn’t give glib answers. As Mary is told, ‘a sword shall pierce your own soul too, Mary’. (Luke 2.35) A candle gives light and warmth, but it can burn us too. Christ, our light, will go through dark times and will be with us in ours.

An extinguished candle leaves an ashen wick: it speaks of mortality. The life and light with which we shine out in the power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ will one day end in dust and ashes.

So too, Candlemas pivots us from the light of Incarnation towards the ash of the beginning of Lent.

Yet, we live hope-filled lives, knowing that the promise of the Resurrection of the Body is the promise of a transformed life in the life of the world to come and eternal life means we shine with Christ’s light in the here and now.

Many lives lack light.

Many people wait attentively and patiently, some knowing what they seek, and others not knowing at all. Yet, instinctively, when they see they recognise.

We celebrated the Conversion of Paul just last week: he was searching for those who bore the Name of Jesus; to kill them not join them. The light of Christ shone, it blinded him, it disorientated him, and he saw the light for what it was: the light that shines in the darkness, the true light that enlightens everyone. (John 1.9)

This light shines out in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ and it challenges and transforms lives.

This light shone out from the cradle trough of Bethlehem;
in his presentation in the temple;
in his baptism in the Jordan;
in water made wine at the wedding feast;
in his healings on the streets of the towns of Galilee;
his feeding of the crowds on the mountainside.
It shone out even at his darkest hour – when Mary’s heart was pierced with a sword –
an Hour that John calls the Hour of his glorification.
This light shone in his resurrection and ascension, and as the Spirit was poured out upon the disciples in the Upper Room.

This light is creation’s light, the uncreated light of God: ‘let there be light’ (Genesis 1.3). As Simeon declares: he is ‘To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel’. (Luke 2.32)

 For Simeon and Anna representing God’s first called people, the Jews, that recognition comes in the Temple, not just in the synagogue or on the streets of Galilee. He comes in the prophetic tradition of Malachi, one to cleanse and give light to the temple.

It is not the last time Jesus will visit the temple. Across the Gospels the temple is somewhere Jesus returns to. Indeed immediately following Luke’s account of the Presentation Jesus is back as an adolescent and is found in the temple with the teachers of the Law.

Luke’s Gospel ends in the temple, because after the Ascension of the Lord we read that the discples ‘returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God’. And as the Acts of the Apostles tells us, they continued to pray in the Temple: ‘day by day, as they spent much time in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts praising God and having the goodwill of all the people’ (Acts 2.46, 47)

The temple was where the light of God had emanated in Israel, and this light was now to shine through Jesus Christ. This makes sense of Paul’s assertion that the human body is the temple and dwelling place of the Spirit, for Jesus cleansed the earthly temple as his own body was a temple to be raised in three days too.

Christ opens the way for the Gentiles, the second called people of God, to know the way to the Father in Jesus Christ

Candlemas today brings us to present ourselves in this temple; this place of encounter – to receive into our bodies his body and to ponder with Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna, and one another the light and darkness, the life and ash of our lives.

And after the communion we will get up, bodily, and move in procession to the Lady Chapel. There we will stand, informally, as the choir sings Simeon’s words.

Christ comes as the Dayspring from on high, the light to dispel the darkness and to enable us to reimagine who we are as men, women and children created in God’s image and likeness.

We stand as those who have received his light, in baptism and Eucharist, and now shine it out and we pledge ourselves to ‘shine as lights in the world to the glory of God the Father’ (Baptism liturgy).

We stand with his Mother, Mary, and ponder all these things in our hearts.

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

Monday, 2 October 2017

'With the help of God, I will': Words & actions

‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus’.

In nomine Patris…

‘Andrew, will you do this for me?’

‘Yes, of course I will.’

You hear the words coming out. Perhaps you really do mean to do what you say you will, and then find that, somehow, it just never happens. Perhaps something deep down tells you that you never intended to do it in the first place, but your words get ahead of your actions.

It’s not that you didn’t want to do it, it’s not even that you consciously decided not to, it just didn’t happen: a sin of omission not commission.

Jesus’ parable of the two sons cuts to the quick of human motivation and action. I wonder if this parable inspired the words of a Book of Common Prayer Confession: ‘we have left undone those things we ought to have done, and done those things we ought not to have done’.

The parable should prompt us to examine our motives and actions.

Of course the parable also points to the possibility that we might equally refuse to do something but then do it. It may be a little perverse, but at least it’s done. This is a time when we ‘may turn from our wickedness and live’.

The irony of the parable is that the unwilling son is found to be willing and the willing is found to be unwilling.

Parables open up possibilities of interpretation. The two sons could represent two aspects of our personality; the bit of us that is willing and the bit of us that is grudging; the bit of us that acts and the bit of us that fails to act.

The two sons could be the Church at times, talking a good Gospel of love, faithfulness and holiness then reining back on that; or at other times, not trumpeting significant acts of mercy and love that we know do happen.

In the context of Matthew’s gospel the target of the parable is thinly veiled. The two sons represent the ‘righteous’ in the guise of the religious authorities – the chief priests and elders - and the ‘sinners’ in the guise of tax collectors and sex-workers: the righteous who say ‘yes we’ll do that’, and don’t; and the sinners who actually do it despite their words.

The two sons were asked to go to work in the vineyard. Herein lies a clue of Jesus’ intent to that first audience. The vineyard is code for Israel. Go and work amongst the people of Israel: recall them to the Covenant; recall them to works of justice, mercy and truth, their first love.

Reflection on the two sons cajoles us into asking ourselves a question: what is my response to God’s call on my life?

Another way Jesus approaches this question is to ask ‘can you drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ Am I willing to shape my life according to the way of Jesus Christ, the one who walked the way of the cross?

The parable asks us to examine our hearts as followers of the way of Jesus Christ. It asks us to reflect on our deepest desires as children of a loving heavenly Father. This is what St Paul is getting at when he shares with the Christians of Philippi his own search, ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus’.

The use of the word ‘mind’ implies that this is all in our heads; that it is something we decide through rational processes. But we are so much more than being thinking animals. We are desiring, yearning animals: we desire and yearn for love, protection, intimacy, forgiveness. That is not a mind thing; that is about tapping in to our deepest desires.

Our translation of the Bible lets us down when it says that the son who said ‘I will not go into the vineyard ’changed his mind (verse 29). It’s much deeper than that. A more literal translation is ‘change what one has at heart’. He came to realise what he truly had at heart, which is to do his father’s will, despite his initial words.

A change of heart is so much deeper than a change of mind.

Icon of the Parable of the Prodigal Son
There are uncanny echoes in this parable with another parable involving two sons. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, told in St Luke’s gospel, one son goes off the rails and the other stays dutifully attentive. And there’s a twist.

It is the son who rejected his father who learns true repentance and knows abundant forgiveness by overcoming what he thought he wanted to do through a deep change of heart – conversion of life – and what prompted it was ‘when he came to himself’ (Luke 15.17).

Body and mind and heart came together and he returned to his family home to pursue his deepest desire for love, protection, intimacy, forgiveness.

The dutiful son – the one who stayed around - revealed that his heart had not yet caught up with the joy of the love, protection, intimacy, forgiveness that he had already had.

In St Luke’s gospel Jesus beautifully tells us that ‘it is out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks’ (Luke 6.45).

Out of the abundance of the heart Jesus speaks: he speaks out of his love for the Father and the Father’s love for him. His speaking, his acting, his mind is all prompted by where his heart is: which is deep in the heart of God. As he reminds us elsewhere, our treasure and our heart are co-located: what we treasure most is deep in our hearts.

This parable of the two sons speaks to our personal discipleship – our ‘yes’ to God – it searches it out and examines it. It also speaks to our commission to go out into vineyard, whose boundaries stretch beyond God’s first-chosen people to the ends of the earth.

This is the Spirit’s gift that our thinking, speaking and acting is shaped by Jesus Christ coming from the very core of our being: our guts; our hearts. That is the Spirit in which we proclaim the Creed, pray the Lord’s Prayer and respond to the dismissal, ‘In the name of Christ. Amen.’ It’s from our guts.

To know the mind of Christ is to be filled with love for the Father, a love poured out in service of the world.

Today let us commit ourselves to take into this new week, both in our words and in our heart, a renewed commitment to Christ: by saying ‘with the help of God, I will’:

Those who are baptized are called to worship and serve God.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,
in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
With the help of God, I will.

Will you persevere in resisting evil,
and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
With the help of God, I will.

Will you proclaim by word and example
the good news of God in Christ?
With the help of God, I will.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all people,
loving your neighbour as yourself?
With the help of God, I will.

Will you acknowledge Christ’s authority over human society,
by prayer for the world and its leaders,
by defending the weak, and by seeking peace and justice?
With the help of God, I will.

May Christ dwell in your hearts through faith,
that you may be rooted and grounded in love
and bring forth the fruit of the Spirit.


Sunday, 6 August 2017

Transfiguration: shine as lights in the world

First preached as a sermon at the Cathedral Eucharist, Guildford Cathedral, on the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, Sunday 6th August 2017

Daniel 7.9-19, 13-14; 2 Peter 1.16-19; Luke 9.28b-36

‘You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place,
until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts’ (2 Peter 1.19b)

In nomine Patris…

Prior to his death recently, my spiritual director and confessor, Bishop Geoffrey Rowell was sitting for a portrait. This is because as a former University chaplain many of his former students and friends clubbed together and prevailed upon him to have this done.

Not long before his death I was with him, as he sat in his favourite chair, and we talked. We talked about mortality - he was dying, but at the time I didn’t know how imminent it was – and we talked about light.

Bishop Geoffrey described the method of the portrait painter, who whilst not a man of faith, was intrigued by light and what light exposes and what it conceals. We talked about one of the major theological influences in Geoffrey’s life, Archbishop Michael Ramsey, who wrote a good deal about light, glory and transfiguration.

For his funeral a prayer card had been produced on one side an icon and on the other the finished portrait that had been completed just in time. It was extremely moving for me to see.
Bishop Geoffrey Rowell
by Alexander Debenham, 2017

The portrait, which appeared in many of his obituaries, shows Geoffrey in his episcopal robes sitting in that favourite chair. The portrait shows a curious mixture of the domestic – his favourite chair – and the ecclesiastical - his white and gold cope and stole.

Geoffrey’s gaze looks out beyond the viewer of the picture, as if he is looking towards something beyond this world even, to something deeply captivating. This isn’t the look of someone who is not paying attention to the person in front of him (a besetting sin of many Bishops) rather it is a portrait of a man looking into the uncreated light of God: he can see, to use the title of one of his books, The Vision Glorious.

The Vision Glorious is what lies beyond us, but also is close at hand: ‘you will do well’, writes St Peter, ‘to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts’.

Geoffrey’s gaze is the gaze of the Christian (his mitre is visible but in the shadows of the portrait). It is as if he is looking beyond to the vision of glory that, a vision which we believe he sees now, in all its fullness; a vision glorious of what we may all see in this earthbound life and existence of ours.

In the portrait light gently washes across Geoffrey’s face, as if spilling out from the glory he beholds, something like the look on Moses’ face after he had beheld God’s glory in the Tent of meeting described in Exodus.

The light of Jesus Christ is not reflected light, but is light seeping out from his divinity: ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life’ (John 8.12). The Christian bathes in that light.

On a rather more prosaic level, I spent some time last week working with the lighting consultants for the cathedral and discussing what lighting is needed when and where with our new lighting system.

We covered the sort of issues Bishop Geoffrey had touched with his portrait painter: the way light can be used to draw out certain features; how light and shadow as both necessary in order to give tone and texture to a portrait or a building. We talked about how over lighting deprives a portrait or a building of its character and the nuances of the subject: light is not well used when it bleaches out the subtle details of the subject. Light can be used to pick out and enhance features.

The Transfiguration of the Lord bathes Jesus in light. But this is not a lighting scheme for a building or to pick out the delicacies of a human subject.
 The Transfiguration by Alexander Ainetdinov

Rather it is a declaration of divinity. This divinity shines out through humanity, the human Jesus Christ, who is divine, at one with the Father.

The Letter of James tells us, ‘all gifts come from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change’ (James 1.17). The light that is seen emanating from Christ is the uncreated light of God. Gregory of Nazianzus teaches that if we imagine the sun to be bright, and it is – don’t look at it – then the uncreated light of God is beyond brightness.

The call of a Christian is to be attentive to the resplendent light of Christ as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts. Christianity is in many ways a religion of light, light refracted into a dark world, but a light upon which God declares, ‘Let there be light!’

Baptism is the moment when we see the Light of Christ first rises our hearts: it connects us with the creative purposes of God,’ ‘let there be light in this child of mine’. Our own baptism, when we are washed clean in water, connects us to the Baptism of the Lord and to his Transfiguration: ‘this is my Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him!’
Shine as a light
in the world
to the glory
of God the Father

Baptism begins the life of paying attention to Christ: it is about bathing in the glory that comes from him; about gazing upon his Divine Face which illumines our faces; it is about being open to the search light of his wisdom and truth; knowing him as the Beloved Son of the Father; it is about being lit up for life.

As St John puts it in his gospel, ‘What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’ (John 1.4, 5). This is Jesus; this is Transfiguration.

The Eucharist draws us into the darkness and shadows of being human and shines the light of Christ into our lives; it takes us to the darkness, ‘in the same night that he was betrayed’ and to the lynching of the cross, when, in the middle of the day, darkness fell over the whole land (Matthew 27.45) and it takes to the glory and splendour of Resurrection.

What this means for us day by day is that we open our eyes to Christ in the world and see what God is up to, the life in which we participate and seek to shine out too: as we’re commissioned at baptism, ‘shine as lights in the world to the glory of God the Father’.

‘You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place,
until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts’ (2 Peter 1.19b)

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Wheat & Tares: Reflections on judgement and judgmentalism

First preached as a sermon by Canon Andrew Bishop at Guildford Cathedral Sunday 23 July, 2017, Sixth Sunday after Trinity. Gospel text, Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43

‘Let anyone with ears listen’ Matthew 13.43

In nomine Patris…

The parables that Jesus told his disciples and the crowds who followed him are multifaceted. On first hearing they are deceptively simple, and certainly memorable. Many, but not all, have an obvious and apparent meaning. But a second hearing, or reading, makes us realise that there is a whole lot more to them. The parables become searing and searching. If we are reading them faithfully, with attention and open to the possibility that God will speak through them, we find that the parables read us more than we read them.

Weeds in a field of wheat
And we bring our own experience and insights to the parables. If you spent the day in the garden weeding yesterday, between the showers, or have it planned this afternoon, no doubt you will be thinking practicalities and the merits of glysophate (for those not horticulturally minded, it’s a weedkiller) or the hand trowel. But more than that we start to be searched out by a parable like this. We might begin to wonder what weeds need plucking out of our own lives; what are the weeds that need plucking out of society?

This is a tough parable. Its conclusion really flies in the face of what we might assume the gospel is all about. Surely God does not want the destruction of anyone, be they virtuous wheat or malevolent weeds; so what’s all the talk of furnaces of fire, weeping and gnashing of teeth? Surely we moved on from all that after the Middle Ages? It doesn’t feel the sort of modern message we might want to hear.

So do we leave it there, declare that things have moved on a bit and conveniently ignore this parable? I suggest not.

If we remember that the parable reads us as much as we read it, it becomes frighteningly modern and prescient. This is because the parable condemns judgmentalism and commends judgement.

Judgements need to be weighed carefully
Judgement has got a bad name in recent years. This happens when we mistake judgement for judgmentalism. Making good judgements in our choices is fundamental to be responsible human beings in society. Judgements are integral to justice, and in the gospels justice and mercy go hand in hand. Mercy is not a soft option but is the partner of judgement.

Our age is curiously judgemental and not so good at making judgements. Social media firestorms rage in the heaping up of judgements against other people; be they politicians, celebrities, media figures or even, bizarrely, the judiciary. Demands for instant solutions force and hurry poor judgements which results in poor decisions. Judgmentalism evacuates mercy from justice.

In contemporary society very often the word, ‘religious’ or at least ‘Christian’ is assumed to be synonymous with ‘judgemental’. And it has been well earned. The church has often been complicit in believing herself to be the judge, dispensing condemnations and anathemas to those who step out of line.

The church has wanted to do the weeding long before the harvest. This has led, quite literally sometimes, to the burning of those people who dissent or fall outside the norms of the time or those we choose to point the finger at, scapegoat and blame.

The point of the parable is that the weeding, the judgement, is not our task. In the parable when the weeds are uprooted the wheat will be uprooted along with it: put another way, the very act of us judging and seeking to root out others corrupts us at the same time.

Marchela Dimitrova, “Jesus Christ, the Judge.” 2011
The parable resists our human inclination to judge others, and indeed even to judge ourselves. How dare we? How dare we, who proclaim in the Creed, ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead’, seek to be judges ourselves? The judgement is Christ’s not ours.

As individuals, the church and as a society we all stand together under judgement. Here’s the challenge. How can the church show not what it is to judge, but what it is to stand open to judgement? In other words, to be penitential?

Remember: this parable is a vision of the Kingdom of God, not a world controlled by the church. It is as demanding for the wheat – the children of the kingdom – as it is for the weeds – the children of the evil one. Yet we are impatient to start weeding, trimming, tidying: for the children of the kingdom other gifts are required: patience, faith and trust. The judgement is Christ’s.

This has a direct personal implication and impact. As the children’s song goes, ‘Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me’. We can change that to, ‘Let there be penitence on earth and let it begin with me’.

The seeds of pernicious weeds are usually pretty tiny, mobile and germinate easily. They take root quickly and deeply. So it is with our own shortcomings– that ‘persistent buried grudge, the half-acknowledged enmity which is still smouldering’ that envy or jealousy – those things, once they root and take hold, become sin; they impair our vision and sharing in the life of God.

At each Eucharist we open ourselves up and speak words of confession and are assured that God’s judgement is merciful and inclined to forgiveness. For some, and perhaps it should be for more of us, the practice of confession one to one with a priest becomes a way of digging deeper, not to diminish ourselves but to be filled with God’s mercy. The priest does not judge, but the penitent says before God, I am open to judgement.

As a paraphrase of the last verses of Psalm 139 put it:

Investigate my life, O God,
    find out everything about me;
Cross-examine and test me,
    get a clear picture of what I’m about;
See for yourself whether I’ve done anything wrong—
    then guide me on the road to eternal life.

And this moves beyond the personal and into life together. What then does it look like for the church to be open to judgement? It requires us to re-position how we speak of the faith. So, rather than condemn, we commend.

It has been said that, ‘through creative, repentant activity in public life, the church participates in God’s healing transformation of the world.’ That is hard. It is also something that will not be understood by the world.

We acknowledge that this has to be spoken to ourselves as the church first so that we can speak it to the world. An example might be how we speak of the ecological crisis and sustainability. We need to retreat from sanctimony and confess the ways that our use of scripture has led to domination and the exploitation of the world’s resources. In end of life matters, we need to commend life and support all that enriches life before we condemn those of a different position: we all stand under judgement.

We cannot claim to be anything other than fallible human beings, but fallible human beings entrusted with a great treasure for and on behalf of the world.

The existence of the church is the guarantee that Jesus Christ remains committed to the world for which he died.

You and I are implicated in that as disciples. The church tells the world that Jesus’ message is to the end of the age. It is not about being superior, or judgmental, but rather, being faithful to Christ in a world that does not know him, simply out of love for that world and ‘all who dwell in it’.

So, the message is: forget the weeding! It is not my job or your job, not the Archbishop of Canterbury’s, nor even the Pope’s job, to make the kingdom neatly manicured or weeded, wielding spiritual glysophate and religious hand trowels, with us judging what is a weed and what is a flower. This is Christ’s ministry.

Let’s reject judgmentalism and take judgement seriously. And may it start right here: in my heart and in yours.

Roger Toulson (1946-2017)

Dedicated in thanksgiving for the life of Roger Toulson, Lord Toulson, sometime  Queen's Counsel, Lord Justice of Appeal, Justice of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom: the least judgmental judge I know. May he rest in peace. Amen.

© Andrew Bishop, 2017

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Encounter & Transformation

First preached as a sermon on the Sunday before Lent 2017 at Guildford Cathedral.
Readings: Exodus 24.12-18;  2 Peter 1.16-21; Matthew 17.1-9

‘”This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased”.
We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven,
while we were with him on the holy mountain’. (2 Peter 1.18)

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

I want to invite you to mountaineering with me. You don’t have to be supremely fit or nimble, and you won’t require oxygen. All you need is openness of heart to an encounter, and a readiness to go back down the mountain changed.

View of Guildford Cathedral from the south east
The first mountain, well, hill. Morning by morning I ascend Stag Hill and up here at its summit I meet the Lord in word and sacrament as I come to Morning Prayer and the Eucharist. I then descend the hill into the University bearing, I trust, the life and light of Jesus Christ. And in the evening I repeat the ascent and descent through the sublime worship of Evensong.

It may not be Mount Sinai, Mount Zion or the Mount of Transfiguration, but it is my place of ascent and encounter, one I share with you. This holy place is a place where we meet the Living God, where the Holy Spirit draws us Sunday by Sunday, day by day. In coming here we open ourselves afresh in word and sacrament to the transforming, igniting, inspiring possibilities of God.

The Bible is replete with times and places of encounter with God, and transformation through God, and more often than not, but not exclusively, they happen on high places.

The Transfiguration of Jesus as described in our gospel reading, our second mountain, is one such moment.

Icon of the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ
Jesus takes with him three disciples - Peter, James and John – and is joined on the mountain by the figures of Moses and Elijah. Moses embodies the teaching and guidance of Torah and is the representative figure of the Exodus: liberation and freedom. Elijah encapsulates the prophetic tradition of the radical call to turn afresh to God.

In Jesus’ presence Moses and Elijah are recast as the pillars on which the people of the New Covenant will be shaped. Jesus is not another person amongst them but is the very presence of God, not superseding but shot through the first covenant which Moses and Elijah represent.

The transfiguration accounts of the three synoptic gospels, and testified to in the Second Letter of Peter, are emphatic that something quite decisive and remarkable happened on that mountain on that day. They ascended a mountain, encounter Jesus and through his transfiguration they are transformed themselves, ready to descend as new creations in Christ.

This rich and powerful moment of encounter and transformation on the mountain gives shape to all our encounters with God. It tells us that encountering God in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit is not a matter that can leave us indifferent. As St Paul writes, in a different context, ‘we shall all be changed!’ (1 Corinthians 15)

The transfiguration of Jesus conjures up an image of the surging vision of people streaming up our third mountain to God’s dwelling place as described by the prophet Isaiah, ‘Many peoples will say, “Come let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths’ (Isaiah 2.3).

The transfiguration also evokes the picture too of the water flowing down from our fourth mountain, the Temple Mount described by the prophet Ezekiel: surging water flows and meets the stagnant waters to transform them and make them fresh (Ezekiel 47.8). It shapes what the action of dismissal at the Eucharist is meant to be: as transformed people we go to be living water to a stagnant world.

Ascent and flowing down; encounter and transformation; God’s ways of life.

Christianity is a religion of enduring encounter and transformation. It is a religion of intensity and extensity, in other words intense moments of encounter that then spread out without being thinned down.

We call this sacramentality: intense moments when the divine presence breaks in. The pouring of water in baptism, the breaking of bread at the Eucharist, the words of absolution following confession,  the pledge of the husband and the wife, the soothing oil of gladness in anointing, the empowering Spirit given at confirmation and ordination: in all these intense moments God’s transformative grace breaks into human experience.

Churches and cathedrals are places of encounter with and transformation by God, and are themselves sacramental. That is at the heart of why this is a precious and holy place and not just a big brick hall.

The great Christian quest is to see the light of Christ breaking through in all places, all moments and all people. This is a gift of the Holy Spirit which is open to us all. In this light we see things afresh and differently; when we have seen the light of Christ shining out then our eyes focus in a new way.

If we will allow it – and God works with us, not against us - this transforms how we see the world and how we are seen in the world. It means we see the Kingdom of God in our midst and we are seen as signs of that Kingdom.

So what will a transfigured you or I look like now, and when we’re out and about in daily life? Perhaps to modify the words of St Benedict, we will be ‘striving to live by God’s commandments every day. Treasur[ing] chastity, harbour[ing] neither hatred not jealousy of anyone and do[ing] nothing out of envy… not seek[ing] to quarrel; shunning arrogance. Honouring the elderly and loving the young. [When having] a dispute with someone mak[ing] peace with them before the sun goes down. And never los[ing] hope in God’s mercy’ (RB 4). That’s not a bad application of being a Christian.

But it’s not just about us: this also about who Jesus Christ, our Saviour, is.

In the gospels Pilate declared ‘behold the man’ and the centurion declared, ‘truly this is God son’: both were right, because Jesus Christ in his body is truly human and truly God. The reading of the transfiguration gospel today tells us of what will be accomplished in Jerusalem in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Our journey to Easter takes us to see Jesus exalted on another hill; the hill of Golgotha. There, as St John Chrysostom said, ‘I see him crucified; I call him King’.

In a dying and dead man on the cross – flanked not by Moses and Elijah but by two criminals - we see the exalted glory of the God who loves us.

The season of Lent, of careful, prayerful preparation that we will begin on Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, is a time of deepening encounter and transformation as we are exalted in the heights and walk the way of the cross. It is not too late to prepare for Lent!

As you prepare for Lent you can ask yourself two questions: how and where do I encounter Jesus Christ? What does my life transformed look like?

You have ascended the mountain of the Lord; you meet Christ in word and sacrament: then go from here and be bearers of his light and life.

‘”This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased”.
We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven,
while we were with him on the holy mountain’. (2 Peter 1.18)

© Andrew Bishop, 2017