Holy Cross Day. 14th September 2014
In sixteenth-century Holland, a fiery Anabaptist was preaching by the roadside. His subject was the perils of superstition and the danger of religious images, statues and the like. The crowd were in awe of his prophetic passion – so much so that they plucked the turf from where he had been standing to take with them as a talisman of God's presence.
There is a huge difference, however, between clinging to a talisman and the deep veneration of the cross that we as Christian worshippers might express today. As Christians, if we “survey the wondrous cross” we don't try to invoke protection from it, but rather we give ourselves, unprotected, to it.
Veneration of the cross is our recommitment to embracing it for Jesus’ sake. It is the ritualised decision to do exactly what Jesus said: "Take up your cross and follow me."
When Jesus talked about being lifted up, he was consciously drawing on the traditions of Numbers 21. There, in the wilderness, Moses was told to fashion a bronze snake and hold it up. All who looked on it were healed. It may seem like magic, but Moses was re-securing their commitment to the Lord. Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” So how does Jesus teach about the cross from this passage in Numbers?
Firstly. We need to face the cross. “Look this way, says Jesus!” Just as in the desert, Moses’ people had to face the bronze serpent, so we have to turn to face the crucified Lord on his throne, the cross: turning from our own preoccupations; turning from our own busyness; turning from our habitual sins; turning from our lack of faith. In the desert, the people were tired, sick, losing hope and spiritually weak. They needed to turn again, and we too need to turn again to face the cross of our Lord, to look afresh into his eyes as he gazes at us from that tree of torture. Here we see the fullness of God's love glorified, of Jesus' love and the extent of his commitment to us, to you and me and to the whole world.
Secondly. We need to confront the cross. “Fix your gaze! says Jesus” In Islam, it's not accepted that Jesus died on the cross; it’s felt inconceivable that such a thing could happen to God’s anointed. Yet Jesus says, “This is the centre of my ministry and the heart of my mission.” In the desert, God sent snakes in response to the people’s rebellion. So to look at Moses’ bronze snake was to confront the reality of their sin. In the same way, when we look intently at Jesus lifted up we see the sin of the world, and more particularly we see our own sin which has driven in the nails and leaves our God hanging, giving himself in the heat of the noon day sun to and for us.
It was more than a ghastly death. God, in Christ, purposefully took hold of our shame. Looking at the cross we confront our sin as it is reflected back to us: the injustice, disfigurement, torture, violence, death. By presenting himself to us like this, God says, “You are part of the injustice; your actions cause disfigurement; your neglect is torture for others; your inner fury is violence elsewhere; and all these things lead to death.”
Thirdly. We need to receive from the cross. “Be healed! Jesus says” Yet how humbling to receive healing from such a battered and broken Saviour! In the desert, gazing upon Moses’ serpent, the people had to realise that God’s grace had absorbed their sin. The snake was provided by God and held aloft by his servant. God was saying, “I have taken hold of your sin – believe and find healing in me.” In the same way, on his cross, Jesus has taken hold of our sin; God has absorbed it; and he invites us to receive healing and forgiveness from him.
Fourthly then, we need to follow the cross. Moses’ bronze serpent revealed God’s patience with his people and his permanence for them. Jesus’ death on the cross is the most powerful demonstration of God's grace. This calls us now to live in a new way. If God's grace in Jesus has saved us from sin, then grace must continue as we joyfully live out that salvation. The cross reveals truth and justice: the truth about our pretensions and failure and the centrality of justice to God’s character. The cross calls us to a commitment to truth and a passion for justice. Through these does the cross become God's tool for making peace.
Meditation, confession, faith and commitment. Protestant churches sometimes speak of showing only the “empty cross of Christ” – emphasising that Jesus’ work is finished. But a full crucifix, with the corpus of Christ's body on it reminds us that Jesus embraced the cross, and that being “cross-shaped” is his mark. Today, as we move on from meditation to confession, let’s have faith in God's goodness, God's grace and let's make being “cross-shaped” the mark of our lives as we , for Jesus, live by his truth and embrace his cross passionately seeking justice for all people.
6th Sunday after Trinity 27th July 2014
Brother Lawrence was a seventeenth-century Carmelite lay brother, and he is known to us today through the record of his words found in The Practice of the Presence of God. In the conversations that make up this little spiritual classic, Brother Lawrence makes clear that he was no intellectual: the intricacies of academic debate were not for him, neither, he believed (after much experimentation!), were the rarefied heights of mystical prayer. Rather, his natural way of life and prayer was simple and straightforward, rooted in ordinary daily experience, and potentially accessible to everyone, whatever his or her position in life.
His “method” was simply this: to practise the presence of God faithfully, day by day, minute by minute, wherever he happened to be and whatever he happened to be doing at the time. His chief work was in the monastery kitchen, and of this he said, “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clutter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquillity as if I were on my knees at the Blessed Sacrament.”
In the teaching in today’s Gospel passages, Jesus offers a cumulative cascade of images as he tries to convey to his hearers something of the tantalising, elusive presence of the kingdom of heaven in their midst. The title “kingdom of heaven” may sound exalted, supremely holy, and consequently, perhaps, not really connected with matters of daily life. Yet the word pictures Jesus paints couldn’t be more down to earth: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed… yeast… treasure hidden in a field…one pearl of great value…” and so on. We shouldn’t really be surprised at this; after all, as Christians we believe in the reality of the incarnation, with its mysterious meeting of the realms of the human and divine in the person of Jesus.
But while we may well be able to accept this theology intellectually, we may yet still miss its practical implications. Jesus is determined that his hearers should not miss what is right in front of their noses and all around them. So his teaching points consistently to a kingdom of heaven that is not out of reach somewhere in the skies, but very much to be found in the here and now – in the seeds of the mustard bush, the loaf of bread, the fish in the sea, and in the ebb and flow of ordinary daily life and relationships.
As Jesus’ teaching makes clear and the experience of Brother Lawrence underlines, we so often make things too complicated and grandiose. In respect of our Christian faith, one contemporary scholar makes an interesting point when she states that “most contemporary Christian music sings are about ‘enthroning’ Jesus, raising him up and exalting him in the highest heaven” (Talitha J. Arnold, Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 3, p. 284). And while there is clearly a place for this approach in worship, there is a danger that too heavy a concentration on this aspect may make it more difficult for us to see and experience God’s kingdom alive and active in our ordinary everyday lives.
Jesus addresses housewives, farmers and fishermen, and speaks of yeast, growing seeds and animal life. We may feel that, for many – at least in the so-called “developed” world – this is not an easy connection to make: technology rules our lives; many children don’t know where milk comes from, and most of our foodstuffs come pre-packaged from the supermarket shelf. But the truths embedded in Jesus’ teaching are timeless and universal, and, where necessary, we need to translate them into new parables.
The kingdom of heaven is like a person who took a potato and cut it carefully having washed it and put it into hot fat where it slowly turned golden brown or the kingdom of heavn is like the riches blackberry, ripened by the sun which you have to strech for, scrating your arm on the brambles, before you can pick it, full of juice it busrts with flavour in your mouth or the kingdo of heaven is like the women, outside whose house, on a cold and rainy evening, your car broke down, and who seeing your distress and need offered cups of tea and the warmth of the fireside until the AA arrived.
Jesus encouraged his followers to live their faith through a deep reconnection with the wonders of the created world, and within the ordinary fabric of their daily lives, whether they happen to be young or old, stockbrokers or farmers, housewives or unemployed. In the normal life and activities of every age and of every person the kingdom of God is there to be found; but it is hidden, and needs to be searched out.
The kingdom of heaven is all around us, in our direct prayer and worship and in the stuff of our very ordinary daily lives. Whatever our age or life situation, perhaps a part of our prayer each dayshould echo the sentiment expressed by the seventeenth-century poet-priest George Herbert: “Teach me, my God and king, in all things thee to see.”
St. Peter and Paul 2014
“On this rock I will build my church.” (Matthew 16:18)
Think of something that's possible but very unlikely. It wasn’t that long ago, fro instance that people would have thought you were a lunatic if you suggested that a person would one day set fot upon the moon, and yet we have all witnessed that reality The great astronomer William Herschel whose great cliam to fame was discovering the planet Uranus in 1781 might have entertained the idea because he believed that the craters he saw through his most sophisticated telescopes were actually “Luna” cities.
How about thinking of something a little closer to home: reaching everyone in the Uckfield for Christ so that Holy Cross has to be demolished and rebuilt on the scale of a small football stadium? Sometimes the task before us seems quite impossible. “In your dreams!” we say.
Well lets be honest it was also completely ridiculous that the Church could be built on the ministry of Peter, to his freinds “Rocky”; or that the Gentiles, all who were not Jews in the first century should be reached by a man who hated the sound of Jesus' name to the point that he seemed to lead, almost single handidly, the campaign for the killing of everyone who dared to mention the name of Jesus: the apostle Paul.
Yet these things happened – because of the God in whom these servants believed.
Some teaching on Peter's confession states that “this rock” doesn't refer to Peter as such, but rather to the truth of his confession. The “rock” is that Jesus is “Son of the living God”. Hence the hymn, which also picks up on Jesus' parable of the wise and foolish builders: “On Christ the solid Rock I stand / All other ground is sinking sand.”
As doctrine, this may be true; but as an understanding of the passage it seems forced. When Jesus renames Simon as “Rocky”, the most direct translation of “Petros”, he adds the prophecy that Peter will build his Church – and nothing will destroy it. And before we get worried that Jesus is claiming too much for the volatile fisherman, think of the amazing prophecies pronounced over David and Solomon in the Old Testament.
When Jesus re-names Peter as the Rock. What he's doing is stating two extremely unlikely things: first, that impulsive Simon should now be known as “Rocky”; and second, that this Rock will be the founder of his Church. Unlikely things they may be, yet powered by God, what is impossible becomes possible.
Paul is also the recipient of an extremely unlikely prophecy from Jesus, though it was initially delivered to Ananias, the Christian through whom he was healed of his conversion-time blindness. “He is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings” (Acts 9:15). This, however, was Saul – who had recently been breathing murderous threats against the Church. Could there have been a less likely candidate?
Like Peter, Paul also had two names. Unlike Peter, his name “Paul” wasn't given to him by Jesus at his commissioning as an apostle. Possibly he already used both Saul and Paul depending on whether he was operating more in the context of Jewish rabbi or Roman citizen. Or maybe he took on the variant “Paul” later, to make himself and his message more accessible to the Gentile world. Either way, like Peter, the name we now usually know him by is the one associated with his greatest ministry.
Near the end of his life he wrote movingly to Pastor Timothy: “I am already being poured out as a libation... I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith... the Lord stood by me and gave me strength so that through me the message might be proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it.”
The thought of a zealous, anti-Christian, Pharisee being the instrument for “unclean” Gentiles across the world to be brought under the grace of God's kingdom is extremely unlikely. What made it possible was the presence and the power of God. As in the case of Peter, the impossible became possible. As with Peter, the ministry of a particular human person was key – yet it was a ministry powered by God.
This week I celebrated 25 years in priestly orders – I could never have imagined, and I feel sure that many of my school teachers , would never have imagined, that I would be in the position I am now in. Yesterday we celebrated with Fr. Mitch his ordination as a deacon in the church – the culmination of a process of God working in, with and through him and we now look forward to all that God wll be doing in him here over the next few years and then on into his ministry as he seeks to follow and to serve the Lord Jesus. Just two very ordinary people whose lives have been changed by God’s grace. And God has a calling and a purpose for you, just as he did for Peter and Paul for myself and for Fr. Mitch. As you consider how he is prompting you, it may seem a highly unlikely task for you to fulfil – ‘in your dreams’ you may be saying quietly inside to yourself. Not me! Here at Holy Cross we have a huge task. We are the only Anglican Church in Uckfield. We form 40% of the Uckfield Deanery. We should be a vibrant God centred hub, so that when anyone thinks about the Christian faith in this area there first thought will be Holy Cross. We should have education and nurturing programmes for the young and not so young. We should be focused n the social needs of this area and beyond our walls into the wider context of the world. We should be the place where the Christian Gospel of love, justice and peace are both taught and lived out as an example to the world. ‘In your dreams’? Yes in my dreams and I hope in yours also. But not only in my dreams, in reality. Remember, “with God, all things are possible”. But it demands your commitment, it demands your energy, it demands your all! What is it that God may be leading you to do in his name that you are saying ‘in your dreams to’? Bring it back to God and ask him to lead you forward bit by bit. Just as he has stood alongside me, alongside fr. Mitch, alongside Peter and Paul, he will stand by you. So maybe that new church building the size of a small football stadium is not that far away!