Sunday, 27 January 2013

Fourth Sunday of Epiphany

 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me 
to bring good news to the poor. 
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
 and recovery of sight to the blind, 
to let the oppressed go free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ Isaiah 61.1-2

The search for community, as longed for by Nehemiah in our first reading this morning,  and lived for by the first followers of Jesus, is rooted in the person of Jesus.

In our Gospel we turn to Jesus in his home town reading from the prophet Isaiah. Jesus has just returned from the desert following his baptism which marks the beginning of his public ministry. 
In the gospel of Luke this is the first thing that Jesus does in his ministry – before he calls his disciples as recorded by St Mark and St Matthew and before he performs Miracles and wonders as recorded by St John.
Luke records Jesus declaring what his ministry is going to be about, a manifoesto is revealed if you like. The words of Jesus reveal what will be found at the heart of his ministry and work in Galilee.
It is interesting that this declaration of intent is not about teaching us a better spirituality, but about doing God’s justice, and creating God’s community? The Christian body that Paul is pleading for, in our second reading from his first Epistle to the Corintihians, will be recognisable by the way it treats others. To be the body of Christ, we have to do as Jesus did.
As we hear these words of Jesus we should ask ourselves in what way does our life together reflect the “manifesto” of Jesus declared in the synagogue of Nazareth?
In what ways do we as a community, as a congregation, as individual members of the body of Christ:
Bring good news to the poor?
Proclaim release to those held captive?
Give sight to the blind?
Set the oppressed free?
And proclaim a year of the Lords favour?

Friday, 25 January 2013

The Conversion of St Paul

Today is the feast on which the Church commemorates what has traditionally been called the 'conversion' of St Paul. You can read about in it the book of Acts.

Recent New Testament scholarship has looked again at Paul, and questioned some of the settled ways of understanding him. You can listen to a good take on the conversion of Paul at the NT Pod here.

We pray today for all churches dedicated to St Paul, and especially for our own cathedral.

Today, Lord, we celebrate the conversion of Saint Paul,
  your chosen vessel for carrying your name to the whole world.
Help us to make our way towards you by following in his footsteps,
  and by witnessing to your truth before the men and women of our day.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
  who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
  one God, for ever and ever.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

The Wedding At Cana

Walking up to preach at St John's this morning was an interesting experience. It was much a case of skating as walking. The streets of West Hendon were pretty much deserted: just me in my cassock and the odd person heading to Sainsbury to panic-buy. I thought that, whatever hymns we'd chosen to sing this Sunday, we should have included 'See Amid the Winter's Snow'.

That wasn't the most inappropriate thought, since there is a real sense in which today's gospel reading both looks back to Christmas and develops the message of Christmas.

At the daytime Mass on Christmas Day we read the familiar verses from the beginning of John's gospel, which had their climax in those words that epitomise the message of Christmas: "The Word was made flesh and lived among us". The Word of God, God himself, without for one second ceasing to be God - with all that this involves - lived a human life, like ours.

But, we might ask, why? Why did the Word become flesh?

As we read on in John's gospel we find, in the first part of that gospel (known as the Book of Signs), the reasons that the Word was made flesh laid out for us in symbolic form, through a series of 'signs' worked by Jesus. And the first sign Jesus works is at a wedding in Cana, Galilee. He changes water into wine.

There are a thousand things to be said about the eleven verses of the Fourth Gospel which describe Jesus' transformation of water into wine. They are rich in symbolism - almost the entire Christian gospel is summed up in those verses. The water is placed in jars used for a Jewish ritual of purication ritual and then transformed - here we have a sign of the rich fulfilment of the Old Covenant, God's promises to the Jewish people (John's gospel, in the first chapter, has spoken of Moses, and promised 'grace upon grace'). And wine itself is an image used frequently in the Old Testament of the abundant life God promises his people. The transformation of water into wine happens 'on the third day' - looking forward to the ultimate transformation (of death into life) which will take place on a subsequent third day. Jesus, rather rudely to modern ears, calls Our Lady 'woman' and talks of his 'hour'. Jesus will next call his Mother 'woman' on the Cross, when his 'hour' has come.

There are a million sermons that could be preached on today's gospel. I chose to preach about the fact that this miraculous transformation of water into wine takes place at a wedding. Again and again in the New Testament - as we were reminded in today's Old Testament reading - God's passionate love for his People is described in terms of a desire for marriage. God, like an eager young suitor, wants nothing more than to be bound to God's People forever in love. And at the end of the New Testament, in the book of Revelation - written by someone in the same tradition as the author of John's gospel but (and I'm sorry to the people of St John's for deflating the heritage of our patron) as certainly as one can ever be about these things, not written by the same person - Heaven is described as the marriage feast of the Lamb. Our God is a God of love. And just as the best symbol human beings have come up with for love is marriage, one of the best symbols we can come up with for the love God has for us is marriage. God marries his people. And Christ is the one in whom God marries his people.

At Cana there is a wedding. Not, on the face of it, Jesus' wedding. Yet Jesus makes it his own. In the story he becomes the focus of attention. So much so that when the steward talks to the bridegroom at the end of the passage and says "you have saved the best until last" it is, at best, ambiguous whether he is talking to the literal bridegroom or to Jesus. The author of the Fourth Gospel knows what they are doing. Here we have the fist Sign of the Word made flesh. And the God who has promised repeatedly in the Old Testament to marry his people has made good on that promise. Here, in this man, we have a marriage feast the like of which we could not have imagined.

The gospel begins and ends with love. The first of Jesus' signs is about love. His death is about love. His resurrection is about love. And, more incredibly, it is about love for the likes of me, and the likes of you. And that love is the reason the Word became flesh.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Today is the first day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

We read in John's gospel of Jesus praying for his disciples, "that all may be one". We are encouraged this week to make this prayer our own.

Christian unity is not simply a sentimental affair - 'it would be nice if we could all get along'. Still less is it an organisational convenience - 'with so many different types of church, we're spreading our resources too thinly'. No, the visible unity of the Church is an immediate consequence of the nature of the Church itself, and its relationship to God's Kingdom. God wills to restore all things in Christ; God wills to bring into unity the human family divided by sin. The unity of the Church is a sign, an anticipation, of this oneness. To be united is a fundamental part of the calling of baptised people.

It's a calling that it is very easy to lose sight of in our contemporary situation. Christians disagree amongst ourselves about so much, and in this context it is difficult sometimes to believe that we could ever be one. Menawhile our consumer culture leads easily into the temptation to think that division amongst Christians is somehow a 'good thing' - different types of churches cater for different types of people; I can have a church that is exactly right for me, just as I can find the car, the phone, the i-Player play list, that reflects me as an individual. On this view, for example, the Anglican 'brand' might be seen as catering for a certain type of person, the Roman Catholic brand yet another, and so on for the Pentecostalists, Methodists, Orthodox...

Against this, we are called by the gospel to work for unity, not to lose sight of the vision of the Church as imaging the reconciliation of God's Kingdom. More than that, we must pray for unity. Because unity is not ultimately something we bring about. It is a gift - nothing other than the gift of the Spirit, the bond of love between the Father and the Son.

A Prayer for Unity

Heavenly Father,
you have called us in the Body of your Son Jesus Christ
to continue his work of reconciliation
and reveal you to the world.
Forgive us the sins which tear us apart;
give us the courage to overcome our fears
and to seek that unity which is your gift and your will;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Baptism of Christ

“ He will baptise with the Holy Spirit and Fire”
It's interesting that both the worst that can happen to human beings - hell - and the best that can happen to human beings - the Holy Spirit - have historically been described in terms of fire.

All those medieval pictures of Hell show raging fires, apparently totally out of control. Yet those raging fires never actually burn people to a frazzle. Nobody in hell seems to be permitted the relief of unconsciousness. It seems they must go on and on, continuously suffering the agonies of death by fire, but without actually enjoying the blessed release of dying.

Yet in the Bible, fires which don't burn seem to be an indication not of the absence of God, but of his presence.

When Moses stood before the burning bush, the remarkable aspect of the bush was that although it was alight, nothing was being burned.
When the Apostles received the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, there's no indication that the flames which appeared over their heads either scorched their scalps or even singed a single hair.

In today's gospel passage written in Luke's unmistakably elaborate and story-telling style, John the Baptist says: "I baptise you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming…he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."

We're given a glimpse in the book of Acts of the wild, untamable potential of God himself, for which the symbol of fire does seem entirely appropriate. We're given a glimpse in Acts, of the God of the Old Testament, who was so dangerous that people had to be shielded from his presence, lest a slight accidental contamination by God might destroy them (cf. Ex. 19:21f).

Occasionally in the  Hebnew scriptures we see the wild destruction of God break out, apparently uncontrollably, such as in the days of King David, when Uzzah put out a hand to steady the ark of the covenant and prevent it from falling off its cart, and was instantly struck dead for his pains (2 Sam. 6:6f). 

And then of course there is the terrible destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, for the abuse of hospitality displayed by the people of those cities, by God raining fire from heaven upon the city. (Genesis 19)

In each case, however abhorrent to our modern mind, there is a connection between Gods wrath, Gods fiery temper and the sin and guilt of the people.

Rather like our own attitude to the terrible forces for destruction that a single flame can cause, our shock is caused by our failure to take fire seriously, our failure to heed the warnings on the packet.

We read of one time when the disciples of Jesus, having faced rejection from a town wished Jesus to call down fire from heaven to destroy them, but he refused, saying instead for them to move on to the next village.

There is a danger to us if we fail to take seriously the need to make a choice, a danger that we do not take seriously the judgement of God for our lives and as result get our fingers burnt as it were. Baptism is about making a choice.

And so the warnings remain, there are consequences for our actions but in all of this God has been much more active in helping and supporting his people, than in destroying them. And this is not just because we have the example and the words of Jesus to act as a counter measure to the ferocity and violence of the Old Testament. For in the Hebrew scriptures we have that wonderful passage from Isaiah which was read to us today:

This is what the LORD says - he who created you, ... he who formed you, … "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the LORD, your God, … you are precious and honoured in my sight, and .. I love you. Do not be afraid, for I am with you… Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth - everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made."

Jesus, the human expression of God, has brought this concern and love of God to its ultimate fruition. At his own baptism, Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit, but the image of the Holy Spirit wasn't fire, but a gentle dove. During Jesus' life, the Holy Spirit was mainly manifest not so much through fire, but more through a loving concern for all people. So in Jesus the fire was controlled and put to use. The 'light of the world' is more of a gentle candle flame, which has the potential to burst into fire and burn, but which is mostly restrained and warm and loving.

And perhaps that's what we should expect not only of God, but of ourselves.
We should not be afraid of allowing the spark of the God within to be fanned into a flame, provided we then allow God to take control and channel that flame where he will.
When we do receive the gift of his Spirit, when the spark of God is fanned into a living and burning flame in our lives it releases great energy, warmth and light for the work of the Church in brining about the longed for and promised Kingdom.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Sunday 6th January - Epiphany

Epiphany Chalk

It is customary, especially in Central Europe, for the faithful to bless their houses 
at the Epiphany  with blessed chalk. They write over their front door:
20 + C + M + B + 13. Obviously, the digits, 
which appear  at the beginning and end of the line, designate the new year. 
‘CMB’ stands for the traditional names of the Magi (Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar) 
and also signifies the Latin prayer Christus Mansionem Benedicat or

‘May Christ bless this dwelling!’

The inscription is made above the front door or porch, 

so that all who enter and depart the home 
may enjoy God’s blessing.

It also provides a very public witness to the Faith.

In any case, these initials over our doorway serve to remind 
us of who the Magi saw in that 

manger and 

how they saw Him. They remind us to adore Him as they did.

Here is the prayer that was used to bless the chalk:

O Lord God, bless this chalk that it may be used for the salvation of the human race.
 Through the invocation of Thy most Holy Name grant that whoever shall take of 
this chalk and write  with it upon the doors of his house the names of Thy saints, 
Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, may through their merits and intercession 
receive health of body and protection of soul. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.