Monday, 25 January 2016

Thou, the anointing Spirit art

This was first a sermon preached as Preached at the Cathedral Eucharist, Guildford, 24th January 2016. The key texts were 1 Corinthians 12.12-31a; Luke 4.14-21

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me’

+ In nomine Patris…

The great prophet Samuel set off one day
to anoint a new king over Israel.
The first king, Saul, had been an unmitigated disaster,
as the LORD had warned,
and so a new king was chosen.

Samuel’s task was to find the one God had chosen
and to anoint him king over Israel.

This was a treacherous act.
Anointing a new king, when the old one was not dead, implies regime change,
and rulers and powers don’t like that.

Samuel filled a horn,
- possibly a ram’s hollowed out horn -
with pure olive oil
and set out to find the new king.
He didn’t use a customary flask
so as to be discreet,
just so that the outgoing king, Saul, didn’t find out.

You can read the detail in the first book of Samuel. (1 Samuel 16.1-13)
Suffice it to say Samuel uncovered the least likely candidate,
as the LORD’s chosen,
and that was David, the youngest of eight sons.

Samuel anointed David by pouring the oil over his head:
David was the Anointed One,
in Hebrew, Meshach, in Greek Christos, in English, Messiah or Christ.

The Sprit of the Lord was upon him; and he was anointed as king.

Many years later the prophet Isaiah
spoke of the Spirit resting upon someone,
someone who will spring from the stump or root,
the family tree, if you prefer,
of Jesse.
And Jesse was the father of David, the Anointed One (Isaiah 11.1).
The descending Spirit would be one
of wisdom and understanding,
of counsel and might,
of knowledge and fear of the Lord.

Then, in a later part of Isaiah’s book
we read what Jesus read
from the scroll in the synagogue that day:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me; (Isaiah 61.1a)

Isaiah describes one who is anointed for a purpose.
Being anointed is not an end in itself
or a cause for self-satisfaction:
it is a commission, a sending,
to proclaim
to bring
to liberate.

He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…release to the captives…recovery of sight to the blind…release of the captives and proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favour. (Luke 4.18-19)

This is the messianic promise and challenge.
This is what being anointed means.

Our first reading shows that anointed life as being
in baptism and in the Spirit:

‘For in the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body
– Jews or Greeks, slaves or free –
and we were all made to drink of one Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 12.12)

These scriptures give us
the empowering, liberating theme of the anointing power of the Holy Spirit.

This gift is both personal
to you and me,
and corporate,
to us as the Church.

Baptism is the possibility, promise and challenge
of being anointed by the Holy Spirit.

One of the beautiful actions at baptism is the act anointing with oil.
This very action performed on prophets, priests and kings,
it draws us into the royal priesthood of the Church (cf 1 Peter 2.1-10).

Oil is the wonderful, sensual symbol of this,
and like all true symbols it speaks beyond itself.

Oil soothes.
If ever you have dry, cracked or gnarled skin,
oil will soothe it and relieve it.
The anointing Spirit of the Lord
has the same effect
on dry, cracked and gnarled human hearts,
softening, soothing  and freeing them.

Oil lubricates.
To undo an overtightened screw just needs a drop of oil.
So oil releases
and eases things that might not work otherwise.
The anointing Spirit of the Lord releases.
She opens up apparently intractable situations,
allows stony hearts to flow with living water.
Anointing means that possibilities open up for things to change.

Oil gives light.
Before electricity, oil was a fuel for lamps.
The anointing Spirit literally in-spires us,
ignites, kindles, fuels us,
to proclamation, service and vision.
The anointed one brings recovery of sight to the blind.
As the ancient hymn Veni Creator Spiritus says,
‘Enable with perpetual light,
The dullness of our blinded sight’
This is talking about enlightened hearts.

Oil heals.
You might recall that the Good Samaritan
on finding the man beaten and dying by the roadside
bound up his wounds (Luke 10.34)
after first pouring oil and wine into them.
Olive oil is known for its healing properties.
And this is highly topical ( 

So it’s little wonder that the Holy Spirit is associated with anointing:
for the Spirit soothes
and is balm to the heart;
she lubricates and releases;
enlightens, heals
and gladdens the heart.

This is the Holy Spirit that rests on and in the Anointed One,
Jesus Christ.

And what Jesus declared at Nazareth
he bestows upon us at baptism.
Through water and the Spirit we are born again
and the Spirit anoints us.

In the context of baptism the anointing oil touches us
as prophets, priests and kings.
In the words of the Jesuit, James Quinn,
in his contemporary translation of the Veni Creator Spiritus,
that ancient hymn used at ordination and confirmation,

As once on Christ the Servant’s head
the oil of sevenfold grace you shed,
so now anoint from love’s deep springs
your chosen prophets, priests and kings.

The Eucharist draws us together,
and sends us out,
as a royal, prophetic and priestly people.
Now, we draw down this anointing power
as we gather at the table of Jesus Christ.

Lord, send you Holy Spirit
on this bread,
on this wine,
on your people.

The Church is called to be bound together as one,
And so is human society
Bound together like the oil and flour
that bound together,
made small cakes for the prophet Elijah,
and the widow of Zarephath who hosted him.
The oil and flour were inexhaustible,
carried on feeding them him and her
and sustained them beyond their expectations. (1 Kings 17.8-16)

In the Eucharist we gather,
as God’s anointed ones:
sharing in the life of Christ;
drawing on the life of Christ;
feeding on the life of Christ
and anointed by the inexhaustible Holy Spirit.
For she anoints us and,
in the words of the 23rd psalm,
we say,
You spread a table before me …
you have anointed me with oil,
and my cup shall be full. (Psalm 23.5)

That day,
in the synagogue in Nazareth,
the congregation heard the scripture fulfilled in their hearing.

in this cathedral church in Guildford,
reading this blog,
may we in Christ’s name and anointing power
find that we, too, are the fulfilment of this scripture.

© Andrew Bishop, 2016

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Manifold and Great Mercies: Re-considering the Prayer of Humble Access in the Year of Mercy

Pope Francis inaugurated a Year of Mercy in December 2015. As an Anglican I have been pondering his inspiring call to reflect on mercy. In this piece I want to do that through re-reading the distinctively Anglican prayer known as the Prayer of Humble Access and its characterisation of God as full of ‘manifold and great mercies’. At the end I have included a contemporary rendering of the prayer.

We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. But you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

The Prayer of Humble Access is widely disparaged – the ‘humble crumble’ – as a totem of a residual, nostalgic, Book of Common Prayer (BCP) sensibility and culture. It appears to be unremittingly negative about the body, soul and spirit.

I did not grow up with the Prayer of Humble Access in its BCP form, but a bowdlerised version in the Alternative Service Book 1980. The prayer is not a nostalgic one for me but has connected with me quite recently as a personal prayer of preparation before receiving Communion. Why do I think that?

The question of unworthiness is a tricky one. How can I be unworthy if the forgiveness of my sins has been declared in my baptism, the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the general confession at the beginning of the Eucharist? A sense of unworthiness before God and other people can be crippling. It can also be enabling. For example, Moses, the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, Jonah and the Blessed Virgin Mary, are all aware of their unworthiness in the face of what God calls them to do. They respond to God in the face of the inadequacy: Moses’ inarticulacy (Exodus 6.12); Isaiah’s unclean lips (Isaiah 6.5); Jeremiah’s youth (Jeremiah 1.6); Jonah’s sense of unworthiness was marked by flight from God’s call (Jonah 1.3); Mary’s wonder at what was being asked of her (Luke 1.34). There is such a thing as a healthy sense of unworthiness. It acknowledges the capacity to receive the worth that God gives each of us created in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1.26).

More than unworthiness the prayer calls us away from an overblown sense of our own righteousness like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable (Luke 18.9-14). Un/worthiness and un/righteousness is overhauled by God’s ‘manifold and great mercies’, the God whose nature, ‘is always to have mercy’. I become more and more aware that trusting in my own righteousness is entirely wrong way to approach God and my neighbour. The Pharisee approaches the holy place trusting in his own righteousness, the publican ‘[does] not presume’ to trust in anything other than God’s mercy.

Daniel prays, ‘we do not present our supplication before you on the ground of our righteousness, but on the ground of your great mercies’ (Daniel 9.18b). A deeper understanding of the rich Biblical seam of mercy is very timely. What do we mean when we say, ‘Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer’, ‘Merciful Father, accept these prayers…’ or ‘Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison (Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy)? How do we articulate the Christian understanding of the ‘merciful Father’ to Muslims who know God as Compassionate and Merciful? (See also James. 5.11b).

The momentum of the prayer is one of approaching: there is a forward trajectory. It evokes Moses approaching the bush that was on fire but miraculously not consumed, and the LORD told him, ‘remove the sandals from your feet for the place on which you stand is holy ground’ (Exodus 3.5).

The sandals of our vanity and egoism are what we take off as we approach God in the Sacrament. In vivid language the prayer expresses our unworthiness – much as the publican – but the abject language grates for many. Why do we have to say that we are not worthy, ‘to eat the crumbs from under thy table’? The Syro-Phoenician woman got it (Matthew 15.21-28; Mark. 7.24-30) – ‘woman, great is your faith’ – after first approaching Jesus saying, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David’ (Matthew 15.22).

Left there the prayer outright denies the rich language of the declaration from God that in Christ, we are profoundly worthy. By baptism we are his Body before we share in his broken Body of the Sacrament.

After we acknowledge the disabling and dissembling character of ‘our own righteousness’ which frustrates God’s loving purpose, the prayer changes gear. There is new trajectory.  The Lord’s property is to have mercy, that is to act kindly and justly and consistent with the purpose that we, believing in him, ‘should not perish’ and that Christ does not come to condemn (John 3.16-17).

The approach we make is to share God’s life. We are not spectators like Moses, but partakers in the Divine Glory. Like the Bush, we are set on fire in the Spirit but are not consumed. Boldly, Peter declares that when we set the corruptions of self and the world, we become ‘participants of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1.4).

So we approach, prompted by God, ‘the Father of Mercies’ (2 Corinthians 1.3) to share at his table where we are not just worthy to be, but invited.

This is where another layer of biblical allusion is added. We need to go to the sixth chapter of St John’s gospel where we find this vivid language of Christ’s Body and Blood. Jesus speaks of the bread, the manna, which the Israelites ate in the wilderness. It sustained them only a day at a time (John 6.49). The Living Bread that comes down from heaven will feed, sustain and give eternal life: eat it and you will never die. But Jesus moves us on from thinking that this is simply bread or perishable manna; it is his flesh. As it was for many of his first hearers, this is a stumbling block to so many (John 6.60).

In the prayer this fleshly language continues, ‘that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood’. In a time when we are so alert to the corrosive effect of low self-esteem and poor body image to speak of ‘our sinful bodies’ seems beyond the pale. Where is any sense of valuing the human body, which is, ‘a temple of the Holy Spirit within you’ (1 Corinthians 6.19)?

It comes back to a profound honesty about who we are, and, actually, the great dignity of not being abandoned. It is the lost sheep who is sought out and brought back by the Good Shepherd; the lost coin sought out by the woman; the wayward son welcomed back by the father (Luke 15).

To say ‘our sinful bodies’ acknowledges that they are in need of repair, healing and redemption and can be made clean and whole by God’s grace. After all, the woman in the parable swept and made clean her house as she searched for the lost coin (Luke 15.8). This is the redeemed washed in the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 7.14).

The prayer is about much more than any sense that it’s only about me sorting myself out. As Pope Francis reminds us, drawing from the Fathers, ‘The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.’ (Evangelii Gaudium §47, p. 29). It seems to me that the prayer makes that clear.

It is God who makes me a worthy recipient of his grace in the Sacrament: he first loved me (1 John 4.19) and all my life is about catching up with that reality.

That reality, and human-divine interplay, is total in Jesus Christ and is the source and summit of my life. The prayer ends with a great restatement of human worthiness in Incarnation of the Word, that, ‘he may dwell in us and we in him’.

A contemporary version of The Prayer of Humble Access

Most merciful Lord,
your love compels us to come in.
Our hands were unclean,
our hearts were unprepared;
we were not fit
even to eat the crumbs from under your table.
But you, Lord, are the God of our salvation,
and share your bread with sinners.
So cleanse and feed us
with the precious body and blood of your Son,
that he may live in us and we in him;
and that we,
with the whole company of Christ,
may sit and eat in your kingdom.

Text of the prayers from Common Worship © Archbishops' Council 2000

© Andrew Bishop 2016

Monday, 4 January 2016

Show and Tell: Is there more to the Epiphany than the Magi?

Originally preached as a sermon at Choral Matins for the Epiphany (transferred to Sunday 3rd January 2016)

‘The next day John [the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”… “And I myself have seen and testified that this is the Son of God”’ (John 1.29, 34.)

+ In nomine Patris…

Is there more to the Epiphany than the Magi?!

Well, given the relative paucity of biblical material, aside from the reference in St Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 2.1-12), perhaps we can say that, without dismissing them, there is more to epiphany than the Magi.

As one of the readings for matins on the Feast of the Epiphany St John’s gospel (John 1.29-34) never once mentions, or even alludes, to the Magi, or gold, frankincense and myrrh, and yet the opening chapters are suffused with epiphany.

Epiphany, from the Greek, means ‘show out’. Epiphany is about showing out, which is an awkward, but dynamic, phrase in English.

‘To show’ someone something is rather passive, but to ‘show out’ has a vibrant edge to it. It is just like when we ‘point out’ something; it throws our attention elsewhere: at Epiphany our attention is thrown to the presence of God.

Image result for john the baptist behold the lamb of godThe Book of Common Prayer title of the Epiphany of the Lord is, ‘The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles’. The root of the word ‘manifestation’ is manus, the Latin word for hand. Manifestation is a gesture of the hand pointing something out.

It is this that is going on with John the Baptist in the opening chapters of St John’s gospel. John the Baptist ‘shows out’ and ‘points out’: as we read, ‘The next day John [the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”… “And I myself have seen and testified that this is the Son of God”’ (John 1.29, 34.)

The feast of the Epiphany of the Lord reminds us that Jesus Christ is, ‘the light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of God’s people Israel’ (Luke 2.32); Jesus Christ ‘a light [that] shines in the darkness, and the darkness [has] not overcome it’ (John 1.5).

This ‘showing out’ and ‘pointing out’ is a recurrent theme through Epiphanytide, as will be revealed over the coming weeks: we will celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, the ‘showing out’ of Jesus’ sonship and anointing by the Holy Spirit as declared by the Father; and the ‘showing out’ of Jesus’ transforming divine-human power in the Wedding Feast at Cana.

Today’s ‘showing out’ is the visitation of the Magi.

The stories and legends of the Magi are enchanting, and the gospel material compelling.

Quite possibly they were Zoroastrians, or some such religion, that tracked the stars and looked for signs within them. Wherever they came from, the Magi came from a region outside that which is usually thought of as the ‘known world’ to the Romans and they are certainly from outside Jesus’ own people of Israel.

They are almost literally other worldly, and their mystique is shown by the legends that have grown up around them.

But what has that got to do with ‘showing out’ and ‘pointing out’?

In primary schools in recent years there has been an exercise that takes place to encourage children’s confidence. It is called ‘show and tell’. The child brings something to school to show his or her classmates, and then to tell them about it.

Epiphany is a divine ‘show and tell’. For the Magi, seekers after truth, wisdom and divinity, the star ‘pointed out’ the way, and Blessed Mary ‘showed out’ her Son to them, such that they fell down and worshipped and walked new paths afterwards.

I wonder what they told as they returned home by another route. Were they like the shepherds who simply could not restrain themselves on their way back to their flocks (Luke 2.20)?

John the Baptist is shower and teller, as John’s gospel tells us, ‘There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light’ (John 1.6-9).

The Epiphany promise is that as God ‘shows and tells’ of his incarnate presence in the Eternal Word, Jesus Christ.

The Epiphany challenge is to join John the Baptist in showing and telling: showing Jesus in our faces and lives, and telling: ‘And I myself have seen and testified that this is the Lamb of God’ (John 1.34).

© Andrew Bishop, 2016