Sunday, 24 April 2011

Easter Sunday evensong 24th April 2011

Archbishop William Temple once commented that it does very little harm if an eager layman talks heresy, provided he shows and imparts a love for the Lord Jesus whereas it does great harm if a priest talks orthodoxy so as to make men think the Gospel is dull or irrelevant.

When it comes to the great Truth we are celebrating of the Resurrection of the Lord this is supremely true. I can as a preacher argue for the Resurrection of Jesus but what may matter more is for you to meet with a life set alight by the Truth "Christ is Risen" however bad that person may be at expressing that truth!

I owe my convictions to meeting such a life in 1967 and I am still going strong.

These Glorious Forty Days are for me a celebration of the heart of my Christian Faith. The Paschal Candle stands in the Sanctuary as a sign of the basic truth of Christianity.

Like Paul at Athens I should like it said of me as is written in Acts 17v18 "he preached Jesus and the resurrection"!

The Truth of the Resurrection is a historical truth.

It goes beyond history but it is rooted in history. We have four slightly different accounts affirming that when the disciples went to the tomb of Christ they found his grave clothes folded and no sign of the dead. In the next six weeks the Resurrected Christ was seen according to Paul by over 550 people on 11 different occasions. The disciples lives were transformed and the Church grew at an astonishing rate surviving nearly 20 centuries to this day. Over these centuries, particularly the last two highly sceptical centuries, much critical investigation has gone into the claim for Jesus Christ being the only Man to come back from the dead. In this connection the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Darling, made this comment about Christ's Resurrection:

'In its favour there exists such overwhelming evidence, positive and negative, factual and circumstantial, that no intelligent jury in the world could fail to bring in a verdict that the Resurrection story is true'.

The Resurrection being a historically founded truth challenges us as an universal truth. Just as the Battle of Waterloo will remain for ever in the history books as the event that changed European history two centuries ago so the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is an event that has not just European significance over two centuries but one that has universal meaning, stretching backwards and forwards in time and in space to every place and era in this Universe.

In the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence I once saw the beautiful 15th Century picture by Masaccio of the Trinity. It shows Jesus on the Cross being handed over to us by the Father. The picture used to hang over a tomb with a skeleton laid on top of it. On the tomb was this inscription: "I was what you are and what I am you shall be" (repeat)

The Resurrection shows us that God has come in the flesh and suffered our death so that we in turn, welcoming this gift of the Risen Christ, may become sharers in His divine Life.

Speaking of Jesus C.S.Lewis said 'It seems obvious that he was neither a lunatic nor a fiend; and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that he was and is God. God has landed on this enemy occupied world in human form'.

"Christ has risen from the dead!" sing Orthodox Christians at Easter, "He has crushed death by His death and bestowed Life upon those who lay in the tomb". The Son of God has "crushed death by his death" in the greatest of all imaginable revolutions. Now death to those in Christ is something to look forward to.

May the revolutionary truth of the resurrection seize each one of us this evening. To be a Christian is to be irrepressible. We cannot be put down!

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Easter Sunday John 20.1f 24th April 2011

There are two sides to Easter Sunday.

There’s what actually happened and how people saw it and see it today.

In the account we just heard from St John’s Gospel something happened outwardly and something happened inwardly.

Simon Peter...went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie; and the napkin that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself. Then went in also that other disciple...and he saw and believed.

Easter is about an event for which there is clear evidence. Something happened that just got summarised for us in the words of the Creed. And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures.

This event makes Jesus Christ the only founder of a world religion without a grave. His resurrection is said to be as well attested as any event in history. The low key tone of the accounts of Easter in the four gospels would be absent in any made-up tale. The, what was then, remarkable and controversial role of women as witnesses would not have been included in any made up story. There was a new confidence found among frightened disciples and eventually even a new holy day as the first Jewish believers changed their weekly celebration of Sabbath from Friday night to Sunday morning. All of these things are accepted history. They confirm something happened outwardly that first Easter Sunday.

When we look at the accounts we see that some believed, some didn’t.

There are two sides to Easter. There’s what actually happened and how people saw it and see it today.

How you see the resurrection of Jesus makes all the difference in the world because how you think about the greatest things in life determines how you do the things that are least.

If you believe Jesus is the risen Lord, the Son of God and Saviour, that affects everything – take three examples: the way you treat other people (since Easter we know that human beings are sacred), the way you fill in your tax return (Easter is such a truth it makes untruthfulness a wasted space), the attitude you have to growing old (this life is just the preface to the book of life Jesus has written for us and age brings us nearer to this).

If the fact Jesus rose from the dead is one side of Easter the other side is the brightness of faith.

For many people it is too good to believe so their faith is dim. At the beginning of Christianity the apostles didn’t want to believe did they? The women’s words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them St Luke writes.

We human beings have an inner blindness that Jesus touched upon when he once took mud and put it over the eyes of a blind man so that he could see again. There may be some of us, even in church today, who need the brightness of faith to dispel the darkness of unbelief. Jesus can do this if you ask him to.

The fourth century writer Ephrem the Syrian writes ‘Blessed is he who gave the mind’s eye – which we have managed to blind.’ He goes on to describe how, just as God made us first out of clay, Jesus made new eyes out of mud for the blind man and will ‘open the eyes which our own free will has closed’. We need to exercise our free will to gain the brightness of faith and let both sides of Easter ring true.

Through such a choice for him may the risen Lord open our inner eyes this morning in Communion so we see new brightness in our faith!

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Maundy Thursday 21 April 2011

If there is one word that captures what is distinctive about Christianity it is 'grace'.

If there is one wonder of our life that expresses that most it is the Blessed Sacrament.

As someone wrote, 'the world can do almost anything as well as or better than the church. You need not be a Christian to build houses, feed the hungry or heal the sick. There is only one thing the world cannot do. It cannot offer grace.'

To live as a Christian is to live conscious of another world, open to the supernatural enfolding and empowering of grace.

Grace - G-R-A-C-E - God's Riches At Christ's Expense - I've heard it put that way.

What riches are ours, particularly in this Sacrament. Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.

God's riches - all the benefits of his acceptance, love and empowering - at Christ's Expense - flowing from the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus all of which is already present at the Maundy Thursday supper table and at every eucharist.

Blessed, praised and hallowed be Our Lord Jesus Christ, upon His Throne in Glory, in the Most Holy Sacrament -and in the hearts of all his faithful people.

Tonight God's riches, his unconditional love, are poured into our hearts at the expense of Jesus Christ Himself!

By tonight’s action Our Lord gives himself by intention, and intention to be sealed on the Cross by the actual breaking of his body and shedding of his blood.

His intention is love of Jesus since sacrifice is about love before it is about death. For Our Lord it is about a love stronger than death.

The Blessed Sacrament is His Body Broken for us, his Blood outpoured for us.

We are never worthy of this Gift, as we say repeatedly before Holy Communion. Lord I am not worthy to receive you...

There is nothing we can do to make ourselves worthy, to make Jesus love us more.

There is also nothing we can do to make him love us less, that is the wonder of it all.

'There's a wideness in God's mercy, like the wideness of the sea' wrote Fr. Faber 'but we make his love too narrow by false limits of our own; and we magnify his strictness with a zeal he will not own. If our love were but more simple, we should take him at his word; and our lives would be all sunshine in the sweetness of our Lord.'

Grace, God's riches at Christ's Expense, this is the very sweetness of our Lord to us.

Grace, unconditional love and acceptance, is foundational to Christianity.

The Blessed Sacrament is not given to us tonight as a reward for good behaviour, even if God's grace is not to be presumed upon.

Jesus makes as free a gift to us which he desires to give to all people.
It is a free gift but not a cheap gift. What expense Our Lord has borne to provide this gift!

And in the garden secretly and on the Cross on high should teach his brethren and inspire to suffer and to die.

After the joyful table gathering tonight we have a procession to a place of sorrows where we keep the Gethsemane Watch before the Blessed Sacrament. I hope a few of us might manage to obey the plea Jesus made to his disciples on this holy night

Could you not watch with me one hour?

So we move back into the action of tonight, the footwashing, the Last Supper Table and Gethsemane , pondering grace, God’s riches at Christ’s expense, given for us and for our salvation on this most holy night.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Palm Sunday 17th April 2011

So we begin Holy Week recalling how Jesus put his life on the line for us.
Through the centuries people who have met and followed Jesus have readily done the same obedient to his words:

'If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it’. (Matthew 16:24-25)

Self-sacrifice is a powerful brand. When I have seen it in the Christian people around me it has made Jesus more real to me.

Jesus calls forth witnesses. The most effective have been martyrs who have lost absolutely all self-interest. Such self-sacrifice has branded Christianity in every age. As the second century writer Tertullian famously expressed it ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church’.

Where people have followed Jesus to distant lands to bring his good news their sacrifice has regularly been infectious.

In a recent chronicle of the church in China called The Heavenly Man the exiled Pastor Yun chronicles three imprisonment’s (1983-88, 1991-3 and 2001) in a story that starts in the Cultural Revolution of 1974. Mindful of the teaching and sacrifices of western missionaries in the early 20th century the sixteen year old Yun and his family are led in desperation to pray to Jesus for his father to be healed from cancer. He is remarkably healed so that Yun recognises the power of Jesus. From this first encounter his story goes on testifying to the Lord’s intervention again and again as people are repeatedly humiliated and reduced by circumstances that are again and again turned on their head. This brings praise to God and dramatic growth to his church. The book is as exciting as any adventure story, with miraculous healings, prison escapes and the greater wonder of mass conversion of lives to Jesus all happening in these days on the other side of the world.

Thousands in China are now emulating the heroic witness of the hundreds of western missionaries who gave their lives over a thousand years to plant the church there. They sowed gospel seed but it is only now that the harvest is beginning, so that hundreds of Chinese missionaries are even now taking the gospel back west on foot to Jerusalem challenging Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu cultures on their way with the unique claims of Jesus Christ.

Brother Yun writes: ‘The gospel grows through hardship and will spread throughout the world. The truth will enter everyone’s heart. Truth is always truth. Nothing and no one can change that. It will always conquer’. This uncompromising word of faith captures the spiritual force of his witness. Yun’s recent flight from China has brought him into direct contact with the wider church where he senses something is missing. He writes of God’s desire to loosen our selfish attachments, release more of our energies into prayer and worship, open our minds to scripture and equip us with new boldness to witness for Jesus so that the harvest of transformed lives seen in China can extend into our own nation.

Because Jesus is God’s Word made flesh (John 1:14) he expects the words of his followers never to be empty. He leads them again and again to invest themselves fully in their profession of faith in him.

When people know Jesus they know their witness to him in words will be weighed according to their perceived obedience to his call to die to self and rise to new life in the Holy Spirit. As all England cricketer turned missionary C.T.Studd once wrote ‘If Jesus Christ be God, and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for Him.’

Last week I was blessed to see one of the most powerful films I have ever seen, Of God and Men. It centres on the monastery of Tibhirine, where nine Trappist monks lived in harmony with the largely Muslim population of Algeria, until seven of them were kidnapped and assassinated in 1996.

It tells the tale of a peaceful situation between local Christians and Muslims becoming a lethal one due to external events rather like those that have recently swept through Libya and other Arab lands.

The reconstruction of their martyrdom shows the monks at worship, serving the poor Muslims around the monastery and encouraging one another as the violence grows. They have to choose whether to leave Algeria. The screen play focuses on conferences of the community where they debate the possibility of martyrdom which in the end becomes a reality. It is a beautiful film which won a Grand Prix at the 2010 Cannes Festival. It ends with the reading of the letter one of them, Brother Chretien, left for his mother in case of his death.

Here it is.

‘I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, even in the evil which might blindly strike me down. I would like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time forgive with all my heart the one who will strike me down. I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this. I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder. It would be too high a price to pay for what will perhaps be called the ‘grace of martyrdom’’.

To the letter to his mother Chretien adds a note to the one who will kill him: ‘In God's face I see yours. May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both. Amen! In H'Allah!’

What grace! To recognise God in the face of one’s murderer!

It was a profoundly moving film made more so by its accurate representation of well documented events 15 years ago in Algeria and by its topicality with all that is happening in North Africa today.

Holy Week lifts the bar. We have performed the annual reading of the passion of Our Lord. We have heard some stories of how that story has drawn forth self sacrifice in China and Algeria.

Back to Horsted Keynes! For us self sacrifice will be more mundane but nonetheless significant for that.

We can’t get to be like Jesus without it.

Holy Week is I crossed out. It’s a time to identify and break selfish attachments and release more of our energies into prayer and worship. It is an opportunity, if we make it so, to follow the way of the Cross in the services later this week, to open our minds to scripture and be equipped with new boldness to witness to him.
As has been said Jesus Christ expects the words of his followers never to be empty. He wants us to commit ourselves, our souls and bodies into the profession of faith we make in him.

‘If Jesus Christ be God, and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for him.’

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Mothering Sunday 3rd April 2011

It’s Laetare Sunday, Rejoice Sunday, rejoice Jerusalem I read for the opening antiphon. Mothering Sunday.

We’re allowed a little respite from Lent – today is also called Refreshment Sunday - and we even have flowers. The daffodils will appear at the end for you to take away.

We rejoice today in Mother Church, our Jerusalem on the hill but also the heavenly Jerusalem above. As God is our Father the Church is our Mother.

The world has reduced this day to a celebration of our earthly mothers, which is no bad thing, especially when, as for many of us, our faith is owed to good mothering as well as fathering.

There is another mother I need to speak to and her image is on the altar.

In Scripture Mary is there, as in the Gospel at the foot of the Cross, She’s there for Jesus and for us without getting in the way.

Do you know what I mean? We should be there for people, especially at times of need, but without getting in the way.

This is the art of Mary – and it should be ours as well.

‘I am the handmaid of the Lord’ she says in the Gospel we read on Lady Day a week ago: ‘Let what you have said be done to me’.

We’ll do nothing to bring Christ into the world unless we’re there for God and for people. We’ll do nothing, either, to bring Christ into the world if we serve God and other people dutifully whilst deep down serving them on our terms rather than theirs

That’s not the religion of the child in a manger but the religion of the dog in a manger!

We’re called like Our Lady to let Christ and his kingdom prevail. This means being like midwives who come sympathetically alongside people and situations that cry out for attention and help what God wants to come to pass. We stand by, we facilitate, we pray, knowing our place as unprofitable servants – and, praise God, we see Jesus build his kingdom.

We best serve God and others with a loving discernment that starts from a determination to listen to God with Mary. The more real Jesus becomes to us and in us, not least through our Lenten devotion, the more our actions will grow loving as he is loving. It’s not how much we do or say or even listen that matters so much a how much love we put into it so to speak, which is why our listening to God is so important.

How can we best give more of ourselves? By listening to God and then secondly to ourselveswith Mary. Mary encourages us towards a positive self-regard. The Almighty has done great things for me.

Take stock of all that Jesus is doing in your life and rejoice!

Take stock also of the ingrained selfishness, the ‘dog in the manger’ bit so you can give it to God in confession.

Take stock of how you and I at times put the work of the Lord before the Lord of the work. It’s when we get too busy in the Lord’s work that our own selfishness can become sadly all the more evident.

Listen to God, listen to yourself, sift and purify your agenda, then listen to those God puts your way who need your ears! As we listen to others on this feast of family with our outer ears let’s keep two inner ears listening to God and to our own reaction to what we hear lest it get in the way.

Like Mary let’s be there for people without getting in their way. Being surrendered ourselves, as at this Eucharist, to whatever God wants of us to be made a Christ-bearer under the watchful care of the Mother of believers.

Jesus who was first carried by Mary at Bethlehem, who is carried to us in Bread and Wine this morning, waits to be carried by you and I to a waiting world!