Sunday, 29 May 2016

A blazing fire: A Trinty Sunday semron

Preached at Evensong on Trinity Sunday 2016 at Guildford Cathedral

Psalm 73; Exodus 3.1-15; John 3.1-17

‘The angel of the LORD appeared to Moses in a flame of fire out of a bush’ (Exodus 3.2)


A couple of weeks ago the pictures coming from Fort McMurray in Canada were terrifying in the extreme. Much like wild fires we have seen in Australia, the fire advanced at extraordinary speed, destructive and all consuming. The pictures of the aftermath of the fire are devastating: homes and livelihoods destroyed and a barren and ashen landscape of twisted metal and charcoal trees, barely hinting at what was there before.

Fire is dangerous. The phrase ‘you’re playing with fire’ serves as a warning of highly unpleasant consequences. The fiery pit is a very vision of hell itself, both smouldering and flames flaring up and licking: ‘unquenchable flames’ as it is described in one place (Mark 9.43b).

Fire is used as an analogy of God: destructive, all-consuming, purging, as in Deuteronomy, ‘For the LORD your God is a devouring fire’ (Deuteronomy 4.24).  This purging, refining and cleansing is not always destructive: in some places wild or controlled fires regenerate flora and fauna. The discovery of processes of refining metals in fire was one of the great advances in human ingenuity. The prophet Malachi speaks of God his people ‘like gold and silver’ in a refiner’s fire (Malachi 3.3)

So what of Trinity Sunday in all of this? Is there a clunky analogy to be made between fire and the Holy Trinity? Could one link the so-called fire triangle and the Trinity: fire needs heat, fuel and oxygen; Father, Son and Lighter Spirit? It would break down into contrivance and heresy. So no!

So what might the fire in this evening’s first lesson point, and draw, us to?

What becomes clear is that as Moses gazed at that fire, he gazed at an intense mystery. There have been explanations ranging from Moses being under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, to a particular plant that, ‘excretes such a vast amount of volatiles that lighting a match near the flowers and seedpods causes the plant to be enveloped by flame. This flame quickly extinguishes without injury to the plant’. But no one suggests that Moses was lighting up a match or anything else that could have caused a plant to burst into flame.

We have surely to treat this as a theophany, a manifestation of the divine presence.

The burning bush grabbed Moses’ attention, ‘I must turn aside’ he said, ‘and look at this great sight and see why the bush is not burned up’ (Exodus 3.3). Of course his head was turned by what he saw. With his head turned, and his attention held, he heard the God’s Word more clearly. The book of Deuteronomy puts it like this, ‘Then the LORD spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of the words but saw no form; there was only a voice. He declared his covenant, which he charged you to observe.’ (Deuteronomy 4.12).

Words without form, without a body to speak them, are as strange as fire that burns without consuming. The fire that Moses saw was entirely like fire and entirely unlike fire. And yet this fire didn’t destroy, didn’t consume and didn’t purge. It was a fire that called: it called Moses, it literally turned his head.

The fire that does not consume is something that can disappear without trace. It is wholly elusive, and yet absolutely real. This is where Abrahamic theology is distinguishable from, say, Indian religions, in their view of the sacred flame. As Elijah discovered, the LORD is not in the wind the, earthquake or the fire, but in a sound sheer silence (1 Kings 19.11-12).

The burning bush tells us about the ineffability of God: God beyond any description that words can give. In biblical terms this is against idolatry, which is thinking that words or images can define, trap or constrain God. So, for example, Deuteronomy reflects on the way in which the fire of the burning bush cautions us against idolatry, ‘Since you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care and watch yourselves closely, so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol for yourselves, in the form of any figure – the form of male and female’ (Deuteronomy 4.15, 16).

Of course later when Moses came down from the mountain to bring the law later in Exodus, that is precisely what the Israelites had done, they had, with Aaron’s the priest’s connivance, created a golden calf which they worshipped. Concocting our own transitory ideas of God is constructing golden claves if we don’t pay attention to what we can’t say of God.

The doctrine of the Trinity guards us against saying too much of God, and not enough. It tells us that we can, and must, speak of God, yet with care. It is like a trellis, up which grows our understanding of the intense, burning, mystery of God, not subject to the whims and changes of our preferences.

As Christians we do claim to see God in an image, but one not made with human hands, and that is in the face of Jesus Christ, who, the letter to the Colossians tells us, is, ‘the image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1.15). And indeed Moses’ encounter with God is not wholly without words. Moses is told he stands on holy ground and that the God who speaks is the God of his ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Exodus 3.5, 6). And then God reveals God’s name, ‘I AM WHO I AM’ (Exodus 3.14).
Jesus shows us the ways of the Eternal God in the parables of the Kingdom, in his incarnation, death and resurrection, in healing and forgiving: the Trinity is implicit and revealed in Christ Jesus who is totally at one with the Father in the power of the Spirit.

So we now know God’s name and we see his face in Jesus Christ and the flame of the Holy Spirit catches our attention to remove our sandals before the mystery of God. Indeed the fire of the Holy Spirit invites us into share the very life of God, in the saving Name of Jesus Christ who shows us the Father and leads us, human and frail as we are, into the divine life. St Paul calls it in the Greek being en Christo, in Christ.

This is the Christian vision of salvation - not simply hearing and obeying law (that’s Judaism); not simply submission to God, abject or otherwise (that’s Islam) - but incorporation, being drawn into the sanctifying life of God, from which flows our thinking and speaking and acting in God’s name.

May we be like flames dancing out of the inner life of the very heart of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to be a source of blessing, peace and burning love for the whole creation.

© Andrew Bishop 2016

Welcome and Worthiness: the hospitality of God

First preached as a sermon at Guildford Cathedral 29th May 2016

The gospel of the healing of the centurion’s slave (Luke 71b-10) is fascinating on many levels: intercession to Jesus on behalf of another; the nature of authority; quality of faith. And there is an insight into the relationship between Jesus, the Jewish elders and the Roman authorities. Far from the notion that each of the three parties had nothing to do with each other, other than be antagonistic, here they work together. The Roman centurion asked the Jewish elders to ask Jesus to come and heal his slave.

Another aspect, though, is worth deeper pondering. That is the question of worthiness and welcome, a better word would be hospitality.

On worthiness, the Jews say to Jesus about the centurion, ‘he is worthy of having you do this for him’, yet the centurion says to Jesus, ‘I am not worthy’.

On hospitality, Jesus starts to go to the centurion’s house, but the centurion says he cannot receive him because of his, the host’s, unworthiness.

There is something of the etiquette and religious sensibilities of two thousand years ago here, but it still speaks today. People who consider themselves unworthy, for example, to enter a church, or consider themselves unworthy to engage in society, who consider themselves unworthy of love, joy or hope, or feel themselves unworthy of time or interest from people they respect. And today there are people who feel unworthy about receiving guests: ‘what will they think of my house?’; ‘if only we lived somewhere more splendid/bigger/glamourous…’ delete as applicable…then we could entertain.

Hospitality and worthiness works out today in other situations too. Who is more or less worthy, the host or the guest? How do we treat a guest? What does it mean to be a guest? The letter to the Hebrews reminds us, ‘do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it’ (Hebrews 13.2).

It is in a gracious welcome and hospitality that we can show a guest just how worthy they are. But welcome is not just about saying ‘hello’ to someone. A good motto is this: ‘Welcome is what happens after we have said hello’.

In other words it’s not just enough to acknowledge a visitor or guest at the door; that’s the first step, but a superficial one. True welcome, true hospitality is about taking the guest as they are and enabling them to feel at home, seeking after their needs: counting the guest a blessing. Christian hospitality always supposes the guest to be Christ himself.

An example of this in St Benedict’s Rule for monks when he says, ‘Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, "I came as a guest, and you received Me" (Matt. 25:35)’. Later Benedict writes, ‘In the reception of the poor and of pilgrims the greatest care and solicitude should be shown, because it is especially in them that Christ is received’ (The Rule, Chapter 53). Christ is most present in those who appear most unworthy of a good welcome.

This worthiness and hospitality is three dimensional: it’s about ourselves, our homes, our country: personal, domestic, national. Who do we welcome? Who do we show that they are worthy to be with us? Who welcomes us? How are we made to be worthy?

This all has a direct bearing on our actions: it’s ethical.  How do we as a nation give worthiness and hospitality to those coming into this country as migrants, refugees or asylum seekers? If we say ‘yes’ to them coming in, through the Border Agency, what is our real welcome like? Are we ready to give a welcome beyond the ‘hello’, a welcome that may be hard work and not without cost - but that says that hospitality and worthiness is profoundly important - be that in the provision of health care, housing, social care, education, jobs?

This is where our faith directly strikes at how we live our lives day by day. In the places where we spend time - in our homes, in school, in the workplace, or wherever it may be - how we receive the stranger, the new person or the difficult person is actually a measure of how we are a Christian.

It applies to church life too, here in this now cathedral now, today. I’ll aks it first of myself and invite you to do the same: who do I say ‘hello’ to but never really come to know, or seek to know, in other words never really welcome?

Welcome isn’t just about receiving someone on to your territory. The territory is shared and both guest and host have to change. If someone joins us at table, we all have to budge up.

Welcome is costly, because it demands from us that we give up something of ourselves and our preferences to go the extra mile; going beyond the superficial ‘hello’. Welcome isn’t just about receiving, it’s about seeking too; seeking out who someone really is, worthy to be loved, welcomed, as if we were welcoming Christ himself.

The centurion felt unworthy to welcome Jesus, but was shown worthiness: Jesus sought to meet him and paid attention to his deepest need in healing the man’s slave, thereby showing worthiness and dignity to the slave too. We learn that no one is beyond the worthiness of God, and all are shown hospitality should they wish to receive it.

The priority of the church today needs to be declaring and living out the worthiness of all people, such that they are ready to receive the hospitality of God.

And those of us here in this building today need to know that too. We need to know that when we dare to say ‘I am not worthy’ we are teetering on the threshold of refusing God’s hospitality. That’s why, like the centurion we say, ‘but only say the word and I shall be healed’. Or from the Prayer of Humble Access, ‘we do not presume to come to this your table, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies’. You make us worthy.

Both those lines come from preparation to receive Holy Communion, which is, for us, the ultimate act of the hospitality of God. In receiving Holy Communion we receive Christ, and each of us is declared and shown to be worthy: worthy for Christ to come under the roof of our lives in word and sacrament.  Curiously, perhaps, the proper name for the bread of Holy Communion is ‘the host’. So, today, who the guest; who the host?

© Andrew Bishop 2016

Friday, 6 May 2016

The Ascension of Jesus Christ: looking up, down, left and right

An Ascension Day sermon preached at Guildford Cathedral, 5th May 2016
Readings: Acts 1.1-11; Luke 24.44-53

‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ (Acts 1.6)

+ In nomine Patris…

You need to wear your shades if you go into the Lady Chapel of Guildford Cathedral on a sunny day at this time of year. The steps take you up into the chapel and, for a moment, your sight line is directly up at the windows perched high up above.

The sun is quite dazzling. And one’s gaze cannot be held. And so one must look down again, back to the mundane, but also a place where manifestations of God’s glory are also to be found: the altar, the table of the Lord; the Blessed Sacrament, the presence of the Ascended Lord in bread and wine; and the people of God gathered for worship.

Ascension Day gives us a scene of people gazing up into the sky looking to the glory, exaltation and ascension of Jesus Christ. They know and are told that they cannot stand gazing up there for ever. They will have to look down again and out and about.

And, like them, we will look out for something that is coming: ‘Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people, and kindle in them the fire of your love’. And in these days before Pentecost, nine days, hence the term ‘novena’, we are asked to pray especially in Jesus’ words, ‘thy Kingdom come’, the Kingdom that the Spirit shapes and leads us into. ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’

This is what we look out for: the coming Kingdom of the Father, made known to us by Jesus Christ, into which the gift of the Holy Spirit will lead us.

You can sketch this movement of the head if you look up, then down, then left, then right. In doing so you are tracing the shape of the cross, and you are shaping yourself in the directions in which Christian disciples’ are called to look.

We look up, a motion expressive of our seeking out the Lord who has ascended from this earth, who reigns supreme over all things. From gazing up at the stars, to spotting Colonel Tim Peake’s space station, from rockets jetting up into space or a helium filled balloon, there is a deep human yearning is to gaze upwards and outwards. We want, we need to gaze so far beyond ourselves because in doing so we sense that we can reach out and touch the face of God.

But the Ascension of Jesus Christ tells us we cannot keep our heads tilted upwards forever. Only a spiritual cramp of the neck comes from that. The Ascension of Jesus Christ tells us we must look back down too. As the disciples were asked, rhetorically, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into heaven?’ (Acts 1.11).

As we look back down we are not looking down on the world in a superior or supercilious way but, for a moment, we consider a heaven’s eye view of our world, a world that we are called to inhabit and love, as God does: as the creation account reminds us, ‘And God saw that it was good’ (Genesis 1.18b)

The prayer of Jesus to the Father, ‘Thy Kingdom come’ captures this vertical gaze, up and down, ‘on earth as it is in heaven’.

But our gaze is not just vertical it is horizontal too. As the Spirit swept over the waters in the beginning, so our gaze goes left and right: we look, with the eyes of Jesus Christ, at a world full of joy and lament; violence and healing; blessing and curse. We are called to walk as if on patrol, looking for the signs of the Kingdom, ‘thy Kingdom come’, looking left, looking right. As St Paul puts it, and I use the Authorised Version unashamedly, ‘See then that ye walk circumspectly, redeeming the time, not as fools but as wise, because the days are evil’ (Ephesians 5.15, 16). ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’

Circumspection literally means looking all around. Up and down, left and right. And time is redeemed and changed as we look for the coming of the Kingdom, a kingdom already amongst us, yet to come, and of which we are citizens. As we pray with Jesus, ‘thy Kingdom come’ we pray ‘Come, Holy Spirit, make us citizens of the Kingdom, reveal to us the ways of the Kingdom, strengthen us to live the Kingdom’. We look around for a kingdom not of this world, but in this world. This means being fully engaged in society and politics, like voting, even when there seems little point.

Churches and Christians that only ever look up will miss what God is about on the earth. Churches and Christians that only ever look down will be bogged down in the things of earth and never notice the power from on high (Luke 24.49). Churches and Christians that only ever look side to side miss the vertical dimension of faith that is more than just about a kingdom being restored to Israel, more than social and political action. The Kingdom of God is richer than that.

This looking around in all directions connected with the coming Kingdom is reflected in a prayer we often use at the preparation of the altar at the Eucharist, drawing on a second century prayer:

As the grain once scattered in the fields
and the grapes once dispersed on the hillside
are now reunited on this table in bread and wine,
so, Lord, may your whole Church
soon be gathered together
from the corners of the earth
into your kingdom.

We are ready to be gathered in, but also to be sent out. As we go out having been fed at this table, may we be at the same time both lookouts for, and signs of, the Kingdom, looking up to heaven, looking down at the earth with a heaven’s eye view, left and right, in see a world where the exalted Christ is all in all (cf Ephesians 1.22,23): in other words, ‘Thy Kingdom come’. We wait in eager longing. ‘Come, Holy Spirit’.

© Andrew Bishop, 2016

Ascension: chronos and kairos kiss each other

One of the great insights of the early twentieth century was the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and their deep explorations into human personality and the world of what they named as the ‘psyche’. Their voluminous work is not something many of us have waded into, me least of all, so, like many people, I know their work in that sort of ‘pop psychology’ way.

One of the insights derived particularly from Jung was about human personality and the different types of person: this is used in the Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicator: so we may tend to be either more introvert or extrovert, sensing or intuitive, thinking or feeling, judging or perceiving. For some people this is a deeply helpful tool of understanding for others, and for other people it is absolute rubbish!
Freud gives another polarity: retentive or expulsive personalities. Being Freud it relates to nappies and basic human actions, and there I will leave that aspect. Essentially a retentive personality is someone who is insistent upon the smallest detail of something, one who feels a need to be in control of all aspects of his or her surroundings, controlling, ordered. So what sort of personality wrote this phrase?

‘I decided after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you…’ (Luke 1.1)

It sounds a rather ordered personality, precise and careful. The author is, I’m sure you guessed, St Luke. Luke gives us a most orderly account and plenty of detail. It is Luke who gives us the celebration of the Ascension tonight, forty days after the Resurrection of Jesus; he’s that precise and, just to keep it all tidy, the Day of Pentecost falls a nice round fifty days after Easter. Luke inspires the putting of the Annunciation a neat nine months before the birth of Jesus at Christmas.

Our liturgical practice mirrors Luke’s neat and tidy scheme. Indeed priestly literature in the Bible demonstrates this tendency: the orderly seven days of creation forming the seven day week; the rubrics and liturgies of the Pentateuch. Priests, and Luke, enjoy chronos the ordering of time, from which we take the word chronological, measured time.

We have something of a contrast in the Biblical tradition of the prophets: they  tend to let it all hang out, talking in big brush strokes, setting hares running and not thinking through the consequences.

St John’s gospel curiously echoes aspects of that. Very untidily – but I would say that wouldn’t I, I’m a priest – there is no moment when Jesus’ risen body disappears from our sight, although he does tell Mary Magdalene, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”’. (John 20.17). But if that’s the Ascension he comes back, whereas for Luke the Ascension is the tidying up of the earthly body of Jesus.

If we took the liturgical year from John it would look all very different. We might call it expulsive, but a better word would be kairos another Greek word that is about time, but more about time as a fulfilled moment. Time, as we will all have experienced, is something of quality of experience as much as measurement. How long has this sermon gone on? Dangerous question! If it’s boring you silly you might say 20 minutes at least, but if you’re interested and engaged you might say 2 minutes. Time flies by: well, chronos doesn’t; kairos does.

So what do all these threads say about the Ascension of Jesus? It is a fundamental and often overlooked festival, not just because it always falls on a Thursday, and not a Sunday, but because it is a major collision point where the retentive and expulsive tendencies of scripture and human preference run into one another, and where time and space is unbounded, and a new cosmology is shaped. The Ascension and its difficulties take us literally into places where our language and speaking cannot go, caught between the poles of Him being here or not.

In Luke’s account of the Ascension the disciples are busily asking Jesus the tidying up question, ‘’Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ But that’s the last we hear of them: Jesus’ answer, and what they see, renders them silent, gawping up into the skies. From that moment Luke’s passion for things chronological fades and whilst the Day of Pentecost falls on the fiftieth day what it unleashes is a swirling maelstrom of confused language, visions, dreams and wonders, people are taken to places, figuratively and literally, where they never expected to go. The Risen and Ascended Jesus appears to Saul and dazzles him.

Jesus ascended into the heavens and inaugurates the age in which his Body, the Church, becomes the vessel which, at the very least, will bear his life and grace to the world, spilling out expulsively from Judea to the ends of the earth.

The Ascension of Jesus undoes our efforts at retention and the compulsion to tidy up and hold onto God; it also tells us that just as the climbing plant cannot climb without a trellis to support it: the risen life is to be lived in the real and actual world and it is not a pie in the sky. It is into the space that a new creative space is created and engaged with in the Eucharist, where we meet the Christ who commissions us. The Eucharist is the trellis that means earth meets heaven and heaven touches earth.

In the psalms we read,

Mercy and truth are met together: righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Truth shall flourish out of the earth: and righteousness hath looked down from heaven. (Psalm 85: 10-11)

In the Ascension retention and expulsion are met together: chronos and kairos have kissed each other. And in the inadequate language given to us, God’s truth shall flourish out of the earth, and righteousness hath looked down from heaven.