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

Friday, 27 January 2017

How can life go on? Reflections for HMD 2017

Personal reflections following a first visit to Auschwitz in January 2017

Archbishop Justin Welby at Birkenau, January 2017
Two weeks ago I flew out of Cracow having been in Poland visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau for the first time. It was my first visit to Auschwitz and I was there as part of a group of Anglican clergy led by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

That question: ‘how can life go on?’ is addressed to all humanity. The implications of the question are huge. How can life go on in the face of crimes against humanity, genocide and pernicious, virulent anti-Semitism? How can life go on after the Nazi’s brutal, systematic attempt at exterminating a whole people?

But I want briefly to give a very personal, rather unformed response in the wake of my visit to Auschwitz.

I have woken today with a heavy heart and, as I knelt to say my prayers this morning, tears that filled my eyes, just as when I was there, remembering that this day marks the ‘liberation’ of Auschwitz.

Those tears were prompted as I walked around Auschwitz 1 and the site of beatings, hangings, shootings, starvation, torture, gassing and sadistic brutality.

Those tears were prompted as I stood by the railway line at Auschwitz 2, Birkenau, where families - men, women and children - were separated and sent to die by gas or by hard labour, starvation or random acts of malice.

The railway at Birkenau and 'Death Gate'
I stood there considering what would happen if I and my family had been taken there: would I be judged fit to work? What of my fit, sporty 17 year son? Would he be assigned to the Sonderkommando to the work of removing bodies from the gas chamber and putting them in the crematorium, after extracting gold teeth and cutting off women’s hair? What of my skinny 14 year old son, the right age to be spared the gas but would he be judged strong enough? What of my 12 year old son, could he be passed off as 14 and thus not go straight to the gas chamber? Perhaps. Perhaps not. What of my 8 year old daughter? What of my wife? The chances they would live beyond their first day at Birkenau would be limited, and I would never see them again and not be able to say goodbye. How can life go on?

The entrance to Auschwitz 1 - 'Works Makes Free'
Images and thoughts assaulted me throughout my visit. I know others in my group were

struck by the same things as me: walking under the Arbeit Macht Frei gates; through the death gate at Birkenau; the close proximity of the Camp Kommandant’s house where he lived a normal family life next to his murderous day job and where he was hanged after the war because of his crimes.

And there were other images that will stay with me. Being January there was snow on the ground and the landscape looked beautiful and innocent as snow does. But the dissonance between the beauty of the snow and the sunsets over Birkenau with what happened there was acute.

I was astonished not to see any walls, but just thin strands of barbed wire meaning that the prisoners could see out and the locals see in. I was revolted, almost physically, to learn more about the programmatic degradation of human beings so that they felt disgusting to one another and to themselves. I simply stood in silence by the pits into which the ashes of the dead were dumped, and where they still remain. How can life go on?

But life did go on for some. And, thanks be to God, the Jewish people were not eradicated, but are here and contribute to the diversity of society and our world.

The liberation of Auschwitz came 72 years ago tomorrow.

What sort of liberation was it? Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi’s accounts as survivors of Auschwitz remind us that the liberation for them was not a joyous time for a party like VE Day 1945 here. Rather, it initially meant being force marched in appalling weather to other camps.

But following the end of the war and the uncovering of all that the Holocaust was, the question ‘how can life go on?’ is a haunting one. Perhaps after my visit my first response is that it does: life does go on.

One of the great contributions of the Jewish tradition to humanity is the priority of life. One of the great sayings of wisdom in the Jewish tradition, if not a direct quote from the Scriptures, is the toast ‘l’chaim’, which means, so I am reliably informed, ‘to life’ or ‘for life’.

Life goes on but never to be the same.

With the Archbishop and fellow clergy we reflected on deep and painful themes such as the Church’s relationship with God’s ancient people the Jews; deeply aware given where we were, of the inglorious part played by the Christian churches in fostering antisemitism in Europe over centuries and the almost total silence of the Church in the 1930s during Hitler’s rise to power.

How does life go on? It goes on in never letting the memory of Auschwitz fade or be denied. Life goes on in all the times we speak out about genocide, in all places where it happens. Life goes on in an uncertain world if we can name and expose anything which snuffs out life, or fosters hatred and death, for example, where people are identified in groups as somehow less than the ideal or norm, whether based on their faith, ethnicity, sexuality, gender or physical abilities.

Returning from Auschwitz my life does go on, but never to be the same again.

 © Andrew Bishop 2017

Thursday, 19 January 2017

What can be said? Reflections on Auschwitz

These reflections come following a visit to Auschwitz with the Archbishop of Canterbury and a group of fellow Anglican clergy earlier this month. On Thursday 26th January 2017 I will join with my Jewish colleague and others from around Surrey at the University of Surrey to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day. I have been asked to speak at the event having so recently visited Auschwitz. What follows is my beginning to work through what it means to speak about something unspeakable. As Archbishop Justin Welby has said elsewhere, “I’ve come away with too much to write, and no words to write it.” 

But here are some initial thoughts of mine.

'There is a time to speak and a time to keep silent' Ecclesiastes 3.7b

There is a profound silence at Auschwitz.[1] That silence emanates from the deathly hush of the gas chamber after people have been killed - murdered - and before their mortal remains are turned to dust and ashes in the ovens. 

It is said that the birds do not sing at Auschwitz. In my first visit there earlier this month I don't recall birdsong, but that may just have been me being unable to hear sounds of beauty and unrestrained joy in a place that represents the polar opposite of all that is good. What I do remember, whilst walking around Birkenau, was hearing the barking of a dog quite clearly. That bark pierced the freezing air as an inarticulate cry that spoke more deeply than I knew at the time.

The people who were killed at Auschwitz had not always been silent or silenced: they spoke, laughed, cried, had dreams, aspirations and hopes. They prayed: praise, lament, supplication and thanksgiving. They spoke eloquently and passionately; they gossiped and slandered. Some had not even learned how to speak beyond the primeval cry for their mother's breast. In short, they were human beings, ordinary and living their lives. 

The humanity of those killed, in all its ordinariness and prosaic detail, is the first thing that the Nazis sought to deny. Their strategy was one of, first, identification (the Nuremberg laws and the wearing of the yellow star), second, isolation (the ghetto) and, third, eradication (Auschwitz). They predicated all this on the less than humanness of the Jewish people, and because of that they had no right to speak, be heard, or to breathe. Human rights only apply to human beings.

Witnesses to the killing testify that those people who were killed at Auschwitz both sang psalms to God and screamed out in terror: they were not silent lambs led to the slaughter.

'There is a time to speak and a time to keep silent'

Anything that one writes or says about Auschwitz has to be properly reticent. It can never be casual or cheap. Auschwitz demands that we pay attention to our silences and our speaking. It's not simply about the choice of words but whether or not we deploy words at all.

Why so? In the face the industrialised and systematised processing of death there is little that can be said that is not trite, hollow or over earnest. Anything we might seek to say about Auschwitz has to pass a high burden of authenticity.

In The Edge of Words Rowan Williams points out that choosing to keep silent can operate in more than one way.[2] Silence can be a way of honouring those people and situations about which we cannot properly speak. However the Nazi project was dependent on German society keeping silence about the violence and death at its heart: colleagues, neighbours and friends of Jewish people did not speak out. For every Oskar Schindler and Maximilian Kolbe there are countless stories of people betraying Jewish people and effectively condemning them to Auschwitz and all that that held.

Silence can also manipulate and betray. Not to speak out about Auschwitz, even 72 years since its 'liberation', is an abdication of responsibility. Failure to speak about, and speak out about, Auschwitz will mean a failure to speak out about pernicious anti-Semitism, crimes against humanity and genocide in our own times.

In the wake of Auschwitz we also need to guard against 'over speaking' that is, naming things evil that may be distasteful, so that when that which is truly evil is present it can be identified, isolated and defeated.

Auschwitz puts me, as someone who always wants to speak, or at least talk, in a difficult position. To speak means I might say too much or not enough, to remain silent, whilst honouring the dead, also can collude with the silence about their fate and what led and leads to it. All I can do is make that judgement in the hope that I speak well: if nothing more, Auschwitz makes me all the more aware of the power and 'edge' of words and silence. May Auschwitz, the place and the idea, never be forgotten or the memory of those who died there fall silent.

'There is a time to speak and a time to keep silent'

I want to conclude with the words of Elie Weisel an Auschwitz survivor, the author of Night, with words from his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986:

The world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men and woman are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center [sic] of the universe.[3]

© Andrew Bishop, 2016

[1] When I am referring to Auschwitz, I am referring to both a place and an idea: the concentration camp and death camp - Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz 2, at Birkenau - and also using 'Auschwitz' as representing the whole Nazi eradication programme of God's ancient people, the Jews, intentional, brutal and evil as it was, and the others - amongst them Poles, Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, Soviets, catholic priests and religious - who were also murdered.
[2] Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), Especially on silence as a moral choice, 48-51.
[3] Elie Wiesel, trans. Marion Wiesel. Night. (London: Penguin Books. 2006), 118.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Searching for Wonderful Things: A University Carol Service

Address at the University of Surrey Carol Service, 2016.

Guildford Cathedral during the current works, December 2016 Photo Trish Lambert
Look around you: what do you see? At first glance this cathedral is full of disappointing, grey, dirty scaffolding, ugly red plastic barriers and warning tape. Not terribly Christmassy.

But if you try and look behind it you might start to see it a bit differently. Perhaps then you can see that the scaffolding represents work in progress, of restoration, renovation and transformation.

Of course if you’re a University of Surrey civil engineering student you’ll be fascinated by it. As I speak, you’re probably calculating the weight bearing capacity of the beams supporting the scaffolding way up in the heights.

As you gaze up what do you see? Being poetic for a moment you might look up into the dark voids and spaces and ponder the mystery of universe and world and your own place in it. You might engage with the final reading tonight which speaks of ‘The light [which] shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’ and proclaims, ‘The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.*

This enlightenment changes how we understand the world and being human. Universities rightly pride themselves on generating learning through accumulating information and building knowledge. Universities search out and re-search knowledge.

The great challenge in a rapidly changing world is to ask an ancient question, ‘where is wisdom to be found?’ The habits of thinking that we have from our own disciplines will give us different insights and prompt us to wonder.

At the heart of this is the question of why sound waves oscillating at different speeds become music; why the tiniest micrometres of silicon are images of captivating beauty; why the stars, that have always prompted humanity to wonder, poetry and art, also contain clues and codes to understanding the depths of the story of the universe in which we exist. Wonderful things.

Where’s this all going? Where’s Christmas gone? Well, it’s right here. I just wonder if you had been a shepherd, called by angels, or one of the Magi, guided by a star, and you arrived at the manger in Bethlehem on the night of Christ’s birth what you would have made of it.

The scene was most unlikely as a holy place, a bit like this cathedral at the moment. A stable or cave, where animals live, an exhausted woman who has just given birth, and scared man, anxious about the mother of the child lying in the feeding trough.

Into that unpromising scene is born a child who is declared to be ‘Emmanuel, God with us’. It is a most extraordinary claim.

This claim is encapsulated by St John, who we will hear in our final reading. God, all that has been, is and will be, is now to be found in one particular place at one particular time with global, cosmic impact. John connects the very beginning of all things with the lives we live now, because in Jesus Christ is life, transformation and hope. John connects human knowledge and learning with God’s deep wisdom of the art of being human in faith, hope and love.

Mary famously declared, ‘my soul magnifies the Lord’. To magnify is, at the same time, to enlarge and make more intense. A magnifying glass can expand our vision, and can intensify the sun’s rays to burn. This Christmas look beyond: look beyond the obvious, the tinsel, mince pies and glitter, search and re-search what magnifying the Lord means for you.

Over that unpromising scene in Bethlehem, a messy stable, a man and woman and baby, sang choirs of angels because in Him the fullness of God is pleased to dwell: and you know, looking at that, I’m sure they sang, ‘wonderful things happen here’.

© Andrew Bishop, 2016

Monday, 19 December 2016

John the Baptist: righteousness is not hereditary

First preached as a sermon at Guildford Cathedral, second Sunday of Advent 2016

Isaiah 11.1-10; Romans 15.4-13; Matthew 3.1-12

+In nomine Patris…

Over the last few years the interest in family trees has grown and grown. Family trees tell us something about who we are by naming the connections and relationships that have brought us to being: they tell us about the roots and branches of families, groups of people and ultimately nations.

They can be dangerous though. They can lead us to over identify with close biological connections - tight or exclusive and the bonds of family, kinship and nation can lead to an unhealthy tribalism or veneration of social groupings. This fragments the oneness of being human in a common ancestor made in the image of the One God.

It is precisely that issue that John the Baptist identifies in the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to hear him. ‘Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones [the stones of the wilderness] to raise up children to Abraham’ (Matthew 3.9). In other words, don’t rely on your supposed ancestral connections, on your family tree, to think you’re right with God. Righteousness is not hereditary, it is something each one of has to work at here and now.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, as was well publicised at the time, discovered that the man he thought to be his father was not. His response was to situate his identity not in a family tree, but in Christ.

The axe ‘lying at the root of the trees’ (v. 10) will bring down the idea that righteousness is hereditary, that biology always gives the most sustaining relationships.

It is ironic perhaps that John the Baptist shared a family tree with Jesus. John was Jesus’ cousin, although like in many Asian families the word ‘cousin’ could be a loose description. It is clear though that Mary, the God-bearer from whom Jesus received his humanity, was related to John’s mother Elizabeth. So Jesus’ and John’s DNA must have been pretty similar.

But similar DNA does not cut the mustard. What connects John - and us - to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is in the fruits of repentance and baptism, for the forgiveness of sins, which is a demanding, radical association of ourselves with Christ above all things, even bonds of kinship and tribe. It makes us ask: what do true, sustaining relationships look like? Where do I find them in my life?

The axe, then, is not destructive. John proclaims a message of both threat and promise. Threat: an axe lying at the root of the trees. Promise: a shoot shall spring forth from the tree stump of the family tree of the man called Jesse. Both in his own day and here and now John brings threat to many and promise to all.

We just have to glance around us at this time of year, late autumn giving way to early winter, to see threat and promise in the trees. The trees have all but shed their leaves. They look at their most dead. And yet deep inside the tree sap is brewing ready to rise and generate new leaves and new growth.

So it is that our final arboricultural image is in the promise that springs from the stump of a tree, the stock of Jesse.

Isaiah names this promise; St Paul, in our second reading, in the letter to the Romans also references it. This is an inclusive promise that the heirs of the patriarchs and prophets are not solely the people of Israel but those who have been adopted into the people of God in Christ. They are known as the Gentiles, that is you and me. We have no ancestral entitlement yet, Paul says, there will come from the root of Jesse ‘the one who rises to rule the Gentiles, [the nations, the peoples, the tribes]; and in him shall they/we hope’ (Romans 15.12). The God of Israel is the God of all Nations, ‘from whom’ as Paul writes elsewhere, ‘every family in heaven and on earth is named’.

In the Lady Chapel of this Cathedral there is an icon, of the Orthodox tradition, which is of the Jesse tree. At the bottom Jesse lies prone, asleep or possibly dead, yet growing out of him is the trunk of a tree. In the branches are our ancestors in the faith, patriarchs, matriarchs and prophets. And at the heart of the Jesse Tree is the Mother of God with her Son, our Saviour, enthroned on her lap. As the Elizabethan poet, Francis Kindlemarsh, put it, ‘an earthly tree a heavenly fruit it bore’: that heavenly fruit, Jesus Christ, the earthly, Mary.

The invitation of that icon is to be grafted into the living vine, to the Tree of Life in Jesus Christ.

John the Baptist prepares the way for the coming Lord, and demands of us lives that reflect the purity and holiness of the One Who Is to come. Something that we achieve, not by our ancestry, not by our own strenuous efforts but by confessing our sins, resting in Christ and receiving his life in baptism and eucharist.

Sharing in that life may we pray that the God of hope will fill us and all the world with all joy and peace in believing, so that all may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Becoming Saints

Shaping the lives of the Saints - All Saints’ Reflections
Ephesians 1.11-23; Luke 6.20-31

Guildford Cathedral is flanked on the north and south by a series of statues. At first glance you might think they are a collection of saints; but they’re not. There are holy men and women on the West End, but the statues on the north and south sides are less obvious than that.  In the form of the human body, they seek to express the virtues, cardinal and theological, down the south side and down the north the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The virtues - Courage, Justice, Prudence, Temperance, Faith, Hope and Love - may be regarded as a series of values, ideas to aspire to. Values are very fashionable. Businesses, churches, schools, hospitals all trumpet their values in prospectuses. Teachers, clergy, and others, have to do school assemblies based on the school’s values which often feels like an exercise in promoting the school’s propaganda or performing contortions to make an abstract value seem applicable in the children’s lives and connect to the gospel.

The virtues are not highly fashionable, not least as they seek to form moral character, which is usually is assumed to mean moralistic, self-righteous, pompous behaviour, which is the polar opposite of what they are meant to do. That sounds a little like the perception of saints. They could be seen as being holier-than-thou, unhealthily unworldly, stained glass wimps.

The purpose of virtues is in the forming of habits and ways of acting that lead to what we call a virtuous life. This means that they train us in the making of decisions. From classical times the virtues shaped moral living. So you could say that saints are those frail human beings who have responded to the call to be formed in the virtues, especially those of faith, hope and love. But also the saints, like you and me, have bestowed upon them the gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety and Fear of the Lord.

A rather grainy picture of 'Understanding' by Alan Collins
Guildford Cathedral
It’s the Holy Spirit’s gift of understanding that has intrigued me recently as I have walked past. This depiction connects the gifts of the Spirit and the virtues with being shaped and formed in the ways of holiness in a slightly unlikely way. On it, the haloed figure holds an unfurled scroll with the Biblical reference Ephesians 1.18. It’s inviting us to read that verse:

The eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of [God’s] calling, and what [is] the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints” (AV)

This are significant words for what it means to be a saint: eyes seeing the light; knowing the hope of God’s calling; and knowing the riches of the glory of God’s promise to us in company with each other and those who go before us.

In this passage, which is a prayer being offered, an expansive and expanding vision of holiness is being stretched out before us. After all the prayer goes on to refer to ‘the immeasurable greatness of [God’s] power’ (v19). And let’s be clear: holiness is not pie-in-the-sky, vague or wishy-washy.

To read this alongside Luke 6.20-31, as the lectionary asks us to, roots the blessedness of that vision of holiness firmly in lived, embodied, daily realities and offers a deeply stretching way to approach them. It does so in the language of blessings and woes. The poor, the hungry, the weeping, the excluded and reviled will all find blessing. Jesus beholds them and blessing falls upon them. 

Those who have life ‘sorted’ - the rich, the replete, the laughing ones – and who seem comfortable now will find that they need to rely more on God to know blessing, so that the rich will recognise their poverty, the replete their hungers, the laughing their pains. So you’re blessed now: seek further blessing from God.

This is the way to becoming more human not less, with the most stretching instruction of all, ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’. Do we even know what we really want others to do and be for us?

In his Rule St Benedict says, ‘Do not aspire to be called holy before you really are, but first be holy, that you may truly be called so’ (My italics). In other words don’t ask for the label of saint without first behaving like one.

Holiness is a life lived in the intensity of the awareness of God’s presence day by day and a life lived and shaped by that reality. The ecology of holiness is supported by the intensity of God-filled moments that we call the sacraments. The Eucharist is the supreme example of this where in word and sign we are pointed to the divine banquet gathered with all the saints. Bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood is the food of the saints.

Holiness is humanness in all its fullness and potential. Just as the virtues were named so as to shape habits and actions, so the call to be saints invites a transformed life. The call to holiness is the call to be a saint; one of the holy ones of God. The call to holiness is the call to be real, more real than you can possibly imagine. The call to holiness is the call to be part of a family that extends beyond biology, kinship and DNA.

So I pray for myself and for you: May the eyes of our understanding be enlightened; that we may know what is the hope of [God’s] calling, and what [is] the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints. Amen.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Reflections on the Advocate & advocacy

The definition of advocacy from the mental health charity Mind is the act of getting support from another person to help you express your views and wishes, and to help make sure your voice is heard’. 

There is a growing recognition of the need for this sort of advocacy and its real power and worth. Advocacy enables those who, for whatever reason, cannot articulate their own story: in other words those who cannot give an account of what makes them, them; their identity; who they are.

Classically, in legal terms, we are familiar with the role of the advocate as the person who has the expertise and training to articulate the story or case of another person in their defence, the role a barrister takes in our system. The advocate gives clarity to the defendant’s story, marshals evidence and articulates the case. The advocate is not the defendant. The advocate does not even have to believe the defendant, but comes to inhabit the defendant’s story such that it can be put on the defendant’s behalf.

That is the case for someone accused of a crime, but advocacy goes wider than that. We can add to the example of ‘Mind’ those of advocacy for the many groups of people whose voice goes unheard in society, like carers at home, minorities, children, those undergoing coercive control, survivors of abuse or trauma, those for whom life is being sucked out of them by over domineering colleagues or family members.

This sort of advocacy in a social sense, either in the workplace, at school or society, draws on the same skills. This often hinges on helping someone not simply articulate their own story, but to help them to understand it and take hold of it. The advocate in this sense also helps identify when someone else is suppressing a person’s story or their identity and sense of who they are.

So for example, part of my role as a chaplain, indeed in my job description, is one of advocacy. This is advocacy in the second sense that is not about a courtroom. That might be advocacy on behalf of a student who extenuating circumstances affecting his or her work, or a member of staff who is feels victimised or bullied by another.

More generally I am, with fellow chaplains, an advocate for the place of faith and belief on campus, which involves telling the story of the way personal faith and belief within a community of faith is integral to the identities of so many people.

In the Christian Church the role of a priest is to help God’s people to articulate their story corporately and personally. That is the sense in which a priest is a storyteller. Not spinning yarns, but holding together a narrative of identity, into which is woven the hope, the faith and the love of God presented to us in Jesus Christ, who, in the power of the Holy Spirit, gives us the narrative of what it is to be human and a creature made in the image and likeness of God, where we find our first identity.

This is where our dedication to the Holy Spirit at this Cathedral points us to the importance of advocacy because advocacy is at its heart the work of the Holy Spirit, named in the Gospels as parakletos, the principal meaning of which is ‘lawyer for the defence’, ‘defender of the accused’, or in the words of the Te Deum sung at Morning Prayer, ‘the Holy Spirit, advocate and guide’.

The Spirit is the advocate who helps us articulate our identity in Christ, and draws into the narrative of the love of the Father and Son. This is the process of sounding the depths of our faith, seeing who we are in relation to who Jesus Christ is, all the better to understand how we take hold of our humanity and the person we were created to be.

That is the context of Advocate in the passage of St John 15.12-end. Read in the context of the imminent prospect of martyrdom and it has a very pressing character: the parakletos is what gives the martyr the ability to speak and act as one shaped by the story of the death of Jesus that becomes more than a wasted life but one that is enveloped in the friendship of God, the fruitfulness from God and testimony of God.

For those of us not facing martyrdom, the parakletos still operates to shape our lives that we, like the martyrs, abide in the love of God that gives wholly of itself.

So then we have the parakletos on our side, but that implies that there is someone or something not on our side. This is what the Bible, and Jesus, term Satan, a name which means the adversary, the one who puts the case against us, the one who wants to declare us guilty.

The adversary wants to unravel the story of God’s love, faithfulness and simply being on our side. The adversary wants us to believe that we are laden with guilt, never good enough. The adversary wants to tell the church today a story that takes us off in directions of despair and patching things together, not remaining faithful to the story of God.

As the story unravels we become gospel amnesiacs and then we really are lost and in need of seeking out, which of course God will do. Counsels of despair about the future of the church or the worthiness of human beings disregard the work of the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Guide.

Perhaps sometimes the problem is that we tell the story against ourselves.

Surely inspired by the Spirit, the Advocate, St Paul asks in Romans, ‘If God is for us who can be against us?...who will bring any charge against God’s elect?’ (Romans 8.31b, 33a). It’s a question that comes in a passage where Paul has asserted that the Spirit helps us in our weakness. Paul knew as we do that our live and hope comes from the extent to which we are grafted in, to use St John’s imagery, into the life of the True Vine, Jesus Christ. It is this life that gives us the capacity to love in a way that counts nothing of the cost, to be fruitful and to testify to that love for as Paul answers his own question:

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8.37-39

There’s the case for the defence, the story into which we are grafted, the story of the self-giving, saving love of Jesus Christ articulated for us in our life in the parakletos, our Advocate and Guide. 'Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful people, and kindle in us the fire of your love'.

© Andrew Bishop, 2016