Sermon: June 21st 2015

22 06 2015

If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation;

the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.

Words from the second epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

It was a dark and stormy night. The scene, like the much parodied cliché, is hardly an unfamiliar one. The Bible is full of dark and stormy weather, and it is doubtless the evangelist’s intention for us to call to mind such highlights as Jonah walking the plank; and Moses trapped between an angry army and a salty sea; and maybe even those echoes, scattered throughout the Hebrew Scriptures—in Job, and elsewhere—of still older myths from the ancient Near East, of God wrestling with the watery forces of chaos and darkness and death, the subjugation of which is the very condition of peace and light and life. Water is, in the symbolic universe of the Bible, that most ambivalent of elements.

The waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. There are really only two possible endings for stories like this: either the protagonists survive the turbulence, or they are overwhelmed by it. Good stories try to have both, of course, and the biblical narratives aren’t half bad on that front. I mean, they—Jonah, Moses, Jesus and the disciples in the boat—all survive in the end, and maybe even in a rhetorically cheap way, literally with a deus ex machina to save them. But this is not to say that their lives were not really ever in danger. Jonah is forced to jump into the darkness, and is engulfed, first by the waves, and then by the monster, and in it, Jonah descends into the depths. Moses and the Israelites are forced to flee, having thought that they would just walk free; and there they were, trapped, seemingly doomed to perish, whether by spear or sea. The boat was already filling, and Jesus was asleep, as terror and despair fell upon his disciples.

But none of these stories go far enough, as we well know, on this side of Good Friday and Easter. They are, at best, pale premonitions of a much better story: one in which the protagonist not only faces the prospect of death, but death itself. The voice that once commanded winds and waves—and they stopped—it would be silenced. The hands that calmed the storm, they would be nailed to a tree; and then they would hang limp; and then they would go cold in rigor mortis. The dead Christ would be as dead as they come. As dead as we will all go.


A week from today, I shall—God-willing—be ordained to the priesthood. On the ensuing Tuesday, I will offer the Mass for the first time, and I hope that many of you will be here for that. On this occasion, it is customary—at least in our circles—for the newly ordained priest to present Our Lady with thirty-three roses: that is, our Lord’s age when he offered up his life for our sake. At the same time, the new priest is to present his mother with a bouquet of roses too: the same number as the age at which he was ordained. Whether intentional or not, the symbolism is striking, if also rather blunt: just as Jesus gives up his life, the priest does so also. Put more starkly: just as Jesus is dead to his mother—recall his words on the cross, entrusting her to the care of the beloved disciple—the new priest is dead to his mother. Frankly, I’m not sure that my mother would approve.

In any case, this connexion made between discipleship and death is not, of course, limited to how we talk about priesthood. Or, better yet, it is how we talk about the priesthood of all believers. For all we say at baptisms about water as an element of life and vitality, or freshness and purity, it is—as we have seen already—also the agent of chaos and death. After all, in baptism, the new disciple is drowned: she is plunged into the depths with Jonah, who foreshadows Christ, to die the death that Jesus died, so as to rise in his resurrection. Appearances notwithstanding, that font is a dangerous place.

All have died, St Paul tells us, and therefore we live no longer for ourselves, but for him who for our sake died and was raised. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. If our deaths are not faked, not mere symbols, on a thin and toothless understanding of symbolism, then surely something must be different now. We are, after all, all of us people of the resurrection, dead men and women, walking.


But what does this mean?

We might go straight to The Dead Poets’ Society (or, more likely if you are a regular at Mary Mags, Horace’s Odes), and adopt a sort of carpe diem attitude of living each day as if it were our last, by which people typically mean a sort of indulgent form of self-actualisation or, at best, the warm-and-fuzzy sentiment of telling our friends and family how much we love them. This is fine as far as it goes, but it hardly goes anywhere at all.

More characteristic of Christian circles is the injunction to be dead to our base desires, by which religious leaders typically mean our sexual or otherwise carnal desires. This too is fine as far as it goes: there is certainly room for expanding our theologies of asceticism and abstinence. But it is also so easily and so often perverted, not just into a hatred of the body, but also an instrument of oppression and control. To be dead in this way is to be inert, passive and lifeless: that is, the opposite of participating in the abundance of resurrection life.

The clue is—I think, and you will not be surprised to hear from this pulpit—in the Eucharist. In this, our central act of worship, we encounter the dead Christ who is forever alive. The death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ has always raised a perfectly sensible theological question: where is he now? The correct answer is, of course, “at the right hand of the Father, interceding on our behalf” or, if we are trying to be just very slightly less anthropomorphic, we might say that Jesus is “in Heaven”. But this is not a terribly helpful answer, seeing as we clearly don’t mean that Jesus is located spatially to one side of God the Father in a place far, far away from here, and it is not clear at all that these spatial metaphors really help us to say what we do mean. And what we do mean is that having died, been raised, and ascended, Christ makes himself available to us all, and not just to his disciples in a Jewish backwater of the Roman Empire in the first century, but across all time and space. The Eucharist then, is the manifestation of this access: in the bread and wine, Christ gives himself to us, and there we encounter the whole Christ, dead and risen. And if our participation in his death is also a participation in his risen life, then it must also be a participation in this, his giving of himself for all. In consuming the flesh of God who is by nature the one who gives himself in love, we enact our willingness to be consumed for the sake of others. All of which is to say that to be dead—for the old to have passed away, and the new to have come—is to be alive for others.

As I was was writing this sermon (and struggling with the ending, as usual), the web-enabled twittering classes began beeping and buzzing about something Pope Francis had said during a Tuesday morning Mass in the chapel of Casa Santa Marta. I don’t know why people are shocked when the Pope talks about our moral responsibility to the poor or to the natural environment—things at the heart of Catholic Social Teaching—but that might be the topic for another occasion. Anyway, what he said, among other things, was this:

Being poor in spirit means going on this path of the Lord: the poverty of the Lord, who lowers Himself even so far as to become bread for us, in this sacrifice. He continues to lower Himself into the history of the Church, into the memorial of His passion, and by the memorial of His humiliation, the memorial of His poverty, by this bread He enriches us.

What seemed to scandalise people, was his description of this “poverty of the Lord”, this “Christian poverty”, which Pope Francis says is:

that I give of my own, and not of that which is left over – I give even that, which I need for myself, to the poor.

Hearing this, it occurred to me that this was probably what I’ve clumsily been trying to say, not just about the poor, but really about everyone. To be a new creation is to live for others, to give of ourselves, and not just what is left over. And so, as we eat and drink his Body and Blood, let us consider how we might be the fruits of redemption, also to be consumed for the sake of others. 

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Sermon: April 12th 2015

13 04 2015


Acts 4:32-35

1 John 5:1-6

John 20:19-31

So, what happens now?

Christ is indeed risen, and death is indeed defeated, and the world is forever changed by the events of Holy Week. Nothing will ever be the same again. And yet, of course, they are.

Christ is indeed risen, but we have not seen him, neither touched his hands nor felt his breath upon our faces nor heard him say our names, as he did Mary Magdalen’s in the garden.

Death is indeed defeated, but we carry on in our ageing and dying and decaying, neither like Lazarus nor like Christ himself, tasting life afresh.


Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe, he says, and he is speaking to us, perhaps more than he is speaking to Thomas. So be it: we are blessed then, those of us who believe having not seen, even if our believing is a sort of faithless and feckless desperation to see. Blessing (whatever that amounts to) sometimes feels like a poor substitute for evidence or certainty. Or, put another way: it would be nice, after all, to touch his hands, to feel his breath upon our faces, to hear him call our names.

It would, of course, scare the living daylights out of us, if Jesus did walk through our walls and extend his bleeding palms, so we could stick our curious fingers into those wretched, blessed wounds. “Peace be with you”, he would say, and we wouldn’t hear him, for all our fear and trembling. It is well known that we are, among animals, perhaps uniquely cursed with the knowledge of our own mortality, which leads unsurprisingly to the fear of death. But we are, in some sense, also afraid of the dead, which is why people have always and everywhere taken such pains to dispose of human remains. We sealed Jesus behind a rock, and yet here he stands. “Peace be with you”, he has to repeat himself, and the warmth of his breath reassures us that he is somehow alive after all.


Receive the Holy Spirit, he also says to us, and then also, If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. Which is to say: we are his people, sealed by the power that conquers death, and tasked with the duty of discerning the identity and boundaries of this new people. Whose sins will we forgive? And whose will we retain? Who’s in?; and who’s out?

Every community has its principles of demarcation, whether explicit or implicit. It is naïve to pretend that the Church is any different, as much as we want to tell ourselves that it is so big a tent as to include everybody. It is one thing to say that everybody is welcome, and quite another to say that everybody is already in. But then, what kind of place is the Church? What does it mean to be the people of God in Christ after the events of Holy Week: to be Easter people, resurrection people?


The theologian’s temptation is to insist that the Church is a Mystical Body and an eschatological reality, and not an empirical entity. And this assertion is true enough: the Church is not, in the first place, a conglomeration of human beings who happen to have some things in common. Even so, it is not a silly question to ask: what should the Church look like? What is its ministry and mission?

Every one who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God, and

By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. From our second lesson this morning.

Or, if you prefer, from our first lesson:

Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common, and

There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need.

The New Testament has diverse opinions on this point, and so it is that we still disagree about what the Church is and should be:

Some say the Church is a community of believers; specifically, a community of those who believe certain things about this Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Christians are those who believe in Jesus.

Some say the Church is a moral community, bound by certain rules, to be found in and extrapolated from the Scriptures. Christians are those who obey commandments.

Some say the Church is primarily a political community, with alternative processes and structures pertaining to power and resource distribution. Christians are those who share all they have in common, such that no one is in need.

These are, of course, hardly mutually contradictory propositions. We can—in classic Anglican fashion—all be correct: the Church is that gathered body of the Risen Christ, which confesses with Thomas that Jesus is Lord and God, and which lives in love and obedience in what looks remarkably like a socialist utopia.


So, what happens now?

The world looks the same as it did last week. The news is as depressing as it always is. Our lives are as quietly desperate as they have always been.

And yet, and yet, there is a new world. There is a new world that began in a garden, when he called her name; in a locked room, when his scars touched them, and they felt the Spirit on their faces. There is a new world in which marginalised women get to forever be hailed as Apostle to the Apostles, and in which cowards and doubters leave their attics to create this subversive society in which “no one says that any of the things which he possesses is his own” and “distribution is made to each as any has needs”.

God knows, a week after Easter—2000 years after Easter—this new world is still a pipe dream, and, God have mercy, that’s on us, we who have the power to loose sins or bind them, and have had our moral priorities mislaid; we who have been called into peace and blessing, and have turned instead to violence and selfishness.

So, what happens now? I’m pretty sure we know already. It really doesn’t take a biblical scholar or systematic theologian to give us, in broad strokes at least, a vision of the Church and world as they ought to be in the shadow of the Cross and the light of the Resurrection.  We can debate till kingdom comes about what this or that parable or commandment means in this or that particular situation. But Jesus’s attitudes toward the poor and otherwise needy are not exactly subtle, nor for that matter, was his relationship with money and power.

Even our hypocrisy and wilful ignorance is forgiven us, thank God. But all the same, we’ve got work to do. There is peace to be received and shared, sins to confess and forgive,  possessions to give up and be given up by, needs to meet. There is a new world to live in.

Sermon: Good Friday 2015 (April 3 2015)

6 04 2015

Good Friday

Death is an outrage. We try and reassure ourselves with assertions that it is just a natural part of life, but this is nonsense. Death is nothing less than the end and destruction and absence of a life, not a proper part of it. And so what if it is natural? Lots of things are natural, and they are no less awful for being so. Death is an outrage, and so are feeble-minded attempts to deny or sugar-coat the stark and awful fact that, one day, we will all die, and—worse still—chances are that some of the people we love most will die before we do, but the world will just carry on until the universe itself eventually peters out into the cold stagnation of maximum entropy. It is almost enough to make a person wish the world away, to curse the God who gives and takes away, as if the giving were some kind of cruel joke.


I do not pretend to know how his mother felt about this whole sordid business, but this I do know: that parents should never have to survive their children. They so frequently do—it is a story tragically often told: the story of young death by disease or desperation or deprivation or destructive violence—but it shouldn’t be so. It is a story often told, too often told. 40 out of every 1,000 babies born die before they turn one; suicide is among the top three causes of death among adolescents in most Western democracies; and nobody really knows how many thousands of young men and women perish in areas of armed conflict every year. And so, always and everywhere, mothers and fathers weep and gnash their teeth, and ask why?

There is, theological casuistry aside, no why, no good reason for the kinds of suffering that go on and keep going on. It is almost enough to make a person wish the world away.


There is no good reason for the kinds of suffering her son went through. There are causes, to be sure, and political historians and psychologists can and do tell about how it came to pass that in such a time and place, a would-be messiah was abandoned by his own people, scared and insecure, and executed by imperial forces, a political criminal on trumped up charges. But to think that there are reasons, that it somehow makes sense for a young man to be mocked and beaten and hung up and killed even for the sake and salvation of the whole world is to commit to a perverse economic logic in which means justify ends. The answer to the question, “Why did Jesus have to die?” must be, if we have souls left to save, that there is no answer. It is a damned thing, what happened to him. It is a damned thing, what happens in the world everywhere and every day, to the innocent and the guilty alike, at the fickle mercy or cruelty or indifference of physics and politics and personal human action and apathy, yours and mine, in our own ways whispering, “Crucify! Crucify!”.


Who knows what solace she took from believing, if indeed she believed, that her boy was in a better place now? Who knows what solace anybody takes from talk of heaven? Who knows what comfort is provided by our pious assertion that her son, who is gone, is yet strangely present when we gather to break bread and eat in his name? But this conviction is what we have, is what we have been given. The Christian faith and gospel provide no quick solutions to grief and loss and death. Instead, our affirmation is that he who conquered death by dying himself is himself living and present in our sharing of the symbols of sustenance that are our sources of salvation. We have no conjuring tricks up our sleeves, no pastoral platitudes to offer. What we do have are these mysteries: the sacrament of the broken body that calls us to die to the sorts of sinful desires that perpetuate the suffering of others, and instead to share life with others, which—as we remember this and every Good Friday—is the only way to conquer death.

Sermon: March 5th 2015

5 03 2015

Lent Series: Women in the Bible

Rachel & Leah (Genesis 29-31)

Biblical marriage is, more often than we’d care to admit, a transaction between two men. The story of the sisters Rachel and Leah, their husband Jacob, and their father Laban is no exception.

Off Jacob went, having deceived his father and cheated his brother of the old man’s blessing. Off he went to find a wife, in the land of his relatives, because a local goyish lady just wouldn’t do. There, in the east, at a well, he meets Rachel—the daughter of his mother’s brother—tending her father’s sheep. He kisses her, waters her sheep, and tells her they are first cousins, and off she goes to tell her father Laban. The men hang out for a bit, and the negotiations begin. Jacob will serve Laban for seven years in exchange for his younger daughter’s hand in marriage. Seven years later, Laban gives his maid Zilpah to Leah, his elder daughter, and sends Leah off into Jacob’s tent who, before the days of night lights, was none the wiser. Come morning, a dissatisfied Jacob approaches Laban, and they cut another deal. Laban gives his maid Bilhah to Rachel, and sends her off to Jacob, in exchange for another seven years of labour. Jacob loves Rachel more than he loves Leah, and this begins the sisterly feud.

The body count in this battle is large, but not in the usual way. Some say that it kickstarted the whole people of Israel, and that’s true enough. Certainly, Jacob got thirteen children out of it: twelve boys and a girl. The twelve boys went off to fulfil Yahweh’s promise to Abraham, and the girl—Dinah, barely mentioned in this story—is eventually seduced and/or raped by an uncircumcised man, and it’s unclear which aspect of this atrocity enraged her brothers more. In any case, precious little else is said about her in the Bible. But I digress. Seeing that Leah was unloved, Yahweh makes her fertile and Rachel he made barren. And so, Leah gave birth, first to four boys. In response, Rachel gave to Jacob her maid Bilhah, who bore him two sons. As you might expect, the sons are Rachel’s rather than Bilhah’s, who never gets to speak. Leah retaliates in kind, giving Jacob her maid Zilpah, who bore another two sons. The maids don’t even get to name the children. Leah’s strategic surrogacy seems premature in retrospect, as she then produces two more sons, before she finally has a daughter, Dinah. And finally, Rachel manages to have her own biological children: Joseph—he of the amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat—and, eventually, Benjamin, at whose difficult birth she died.

So far, so mired in patriarchy, but this is hardly surprising: even without buying into the myth of moral progress, one would hardly expect the Bible to be any less sexist than our present situation. To read the Bible from the margins is to look for the subtle ways in which otherwise subdued voices can tell us about how dominant forces can or should be subverted. Our story begins in Genesis 29 as a transaction between two men, the trickster Jacob and Laban, his uncle who too will prove a wily character. As the story progresses, however—through to Genesis 31—we see how the sisters Leah and Rachel exercise their own agency, limited though it is by the social structures they inhabit. The two paradigmatic incidents involve mandrakes and teraphim respectively.


Mandrakes—or, literally “love plants” in biblical Hebrew—were thought to be an aphrodisiac and enhancer of fertility. In fact, it is a hallucinogen, and may cause poisoning, vomiting, and diarrhoea if ingested. Anyway, Reuben finds some one day, and gives them to his mother Leah who, as we have established, has no need for them. Rachel, on the other hand, wants them, and so she trades for them an amorous night with Jacob, their husband. “You must come in to me; for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes” is, in my estimation, one of the best lines in all of Scripture. I have hired you. The word sachar has strong commercial connotations. It is Jacob’s turn to be the object of a transaction between two women. And for her chutzpah Leah receives not just one more son, but two, and a daughter also.

The mandrakes seem to have worked, for at the end of this episode, Rachel finally manages to conceive. Or—according to the Midrash—Leah intercedes on her sister’s behalf while pregnant with Dinah, which prompts Yahweh to remember Rachel and open her womb.  This rabbinic embellishment has Leah demanding justice for her sister, so that she has at least as many sons as their maidservants. Thus, Dinah—whose name is exceptionally left unexplained in the biblical narrative—is given a name that means “justice”, much like her half-brother Dan, born by Rachel’s maid Bilhah. The story of Joseph, Rachel’s  firstborn, turns out to be a crucial prologue to the story of the Exodus, in which again mothers play a central role, but that’s a talk for another time.

We turn now to the matter of the teraphim, the household gods that problematize the view that ancient Israelites were iconoclastic monotheists in stark contrast to their pagan Ancient Near Eastern neighbours. Rachel steals Laban’s teraphim, and no one really knows why. The context is Jacob’s increasing unhappiness in his father-in-law’s household, a frustration he expresses to his two wives, who agree with him, pointing out with one voice that not only had Laban sold them, but that he was quickly using up his earnings from the sale. It might be too anachronistic to say that they were criticising the patriarchy, but they were at least participating in a revolt against a patriarch. So they fled—Jacob, and Rachel and Leah, and their household—but before they did so, Rachel swiped her father’s household gods, and neither Laban nor Jacob were any the wiser. Indeed, Jacob’s ignorance—and remember, knowledge is power, in the Bible as much as elsewhere—nearly lands them in trouble, as he curses to death anyone whom Laban finds has stolen his gods. As Laban is searching, Rachel puts the little statues in a camel’s saddle and sits on it. Her father searches her tent, but she does not get up, saying, “I cannot rise before you, for the way of women is upon me”. A woman may not have been fazed by this, but Laban—afraid of menstruation as the members of his sex are wont to be—left her unsearched, and thus failed to find his precious gods.

If Leah’s mandrakes and her fertility were the sources of her power over Jacob, then the teraphim and menstruation were Rachel’s sources of power against Laban. Nobody knows why she took them, but one influential reading is based on the claim (for which there is some evidence in extra-biblical material) that household gods were symbols of inheritance and leadership. If so, then Rachel’s taking of Laban’s household gods was a wresting of power and resource from her father who sold her. Perhaps she did so for the sake of her husband or her sons, but this is not to say that she did not also do it for herself.


So, we have a story about two women—sisters, and then wives to the same man—who managed to objectify the objectifiers and trick the tricksters. None of this undoes the structural patriarchy of the biblical text and its world, but it is not nothing either. After all, the gospel is about—among other things—the subversion of power by the seemingly powerless. A young woman, pregnant out of wedlock, gives birth to a King, and lays him in a manger. A man from the Jewish backwaters of the Roman Empire is rejected by the religious power brokers and executed as a political criminal by imperial forces, and rises again in glory. Such stories about the subversion of power—not for its own sake or even our own, but for the good of all—are the stuff on which the Christian faith is founded. And accustomed as we are to forget it, women like Rachel and Leah—and Sarah (Isaac’s mother); and Rebekah (Jacob’s mother); and Jochebed (Moses’s mother); and Rahab the prostitute; and Deborah the Judge; and Mary Magdalen the apostle to the apostles—women are, as should be obvious but so often isn’t, crucial and active participants in the economy of salvation, the story in and to which we, all of us, belong.

Sermon: February 8th 2015

17 02 2015

Sermon preached at Evensong, Hertford College, Oxford.


Genesis 2·4b–25

Luke 8·22–35

In the beginning, in the darkness God said, “Let there be light”, and there was. And God spoke some more and thus made land and sea and stars; and creatures that swim and those that fly, and even those that crawl and walk. And finally on the sixth day, God mades human beings: male and female, God created them. Thus says the Book of Genesis, the first chapter.

Or: In the beginning, God made the earth and the sky; and on that same day, God made a man, and a garden to put him in and animals to keep him company. And then when God discovers that animals won’t do the trick, God made a woman: flesh of the man’s flesh, bone of his bones. Thus says—the slightly creepy and sexist— Book of Genesis, the second chapter.

Or: In the beginning, there was a monstrous sea of chaos—or a dragon, or a beast called Leviathan, or one named Rahab—and God subdued it to bring about peace. This tradition is hinted at in tonight’s psalm, which has God stilling the roaring of the seas, and also occurs more prominently in other psalms, in the prophecies of Isaiah, and in the Book of Job. Even in Genesis 1, God’s Spirit hovers over the formless watery void, from which the order of creation emerges.


People like creation myths. As far as we know, every culture has them, with the possible exception of the Pirahã people in the Amazon. But they also seem to have no sense of history beyond living memory, no social hierarchy, and no words for numbers, so who knows what’s going on there.

The Pirahã aside, psychologists think that our affinity for creation myths and for religion more generally is a product for our evolved tendency to think in social and instrumental terms. Children intuitively assume that natural objects like rocks and waterfalls have some kind of function, just like artefacts do. Rocks are pointy so that dinosaurs can scratch their backs, waterfalls exist so that animals can take showers, that sort of thing. They gradually grow out eventually, but some residue remains into adulthood. Even scientists slip into functional language, like when we talk about how nature selects for eyes, as if she had a choice in the matter. Our metaphors are inescapably functional and, by extension, social and personal.

Because we have rich mental and emotional lives—thought and feelings, desires and dislikes—we assume that other things do too, including our pets, our computers, and as in the evolutionary case, Nature. Whether we meant to or not, we have a tendency to anthropomorphise things, including God.


This is bad news for theologians.

Not because psychological theories about religion somehow undermine theological claims. But because if we’re right, then theologians are fighting an uphill battle against a view of God that they consider to be deeply mistaken.

People intuitively believe that God is very much like them, but better and bigger and more powerful. Theologians, on the other hand, have always insisted that God is absolutely nothing like any created thing: in fact, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish theologians have agreed for centuries that the God who creates must be wholly other from the created. Even the idea that God is “better and bigger and more powerful” than creatures is idolatrous, because God and creatures cannot be comparable in that way.

When we say that God created the world, we are not saying that God is the first in a chain of causes, because that would be to list God among other things. Nor are we saying that God is an “Intelligent Designer” as if God were an extremely clever and powerful nerd. Rather, the Christian doctrine of creation is simply the claim that the world is utterly dependent on and indebted to God, who freely gives it its being. It is therefore about the self-sufficiency and otherness of God, and not really about how and when the world began. The doctrine of creation is a theological assertion, not a scientific theory.


I guess it goes without saying that I disapprove of literal readings of biblical creation myths. There is also plenty of evidence now that these myths were never really intended to describe how the world began at all, but rather to contrast the Hebrew God from the deities of neighbouring civilisations. Unlike the Babylonian Marduk or the Canaanite Baal, Yahweh did not have to struggle with the forces of chaos to bring about order: instead, God speaks, and things leap into being.

This interpretive principle—that biblical texts mean primarily to say something about God and not history—also helps us to make sense of the miracle narratives in Luke’s gospel. Just as the creation myths are not about what happened at the beginning of the physical universe, the miracle narratives are not about what happened in the Middle East two thousand years ago. This is not to say that they are necessarily fictional—maybe they are; maybe they aren’t—but the question of historicity or facticity is more or less beside the point.

At last, then, we come to the gospel reading:

In the first story, Jesus is rudely awakened to calm the treacherous waves. In the second, he casts evil spirits out of a naked man, and into a herd of suicidal swine.

As the putters together of the lectionary realize, Luke means to call up memories of the creation narratives in Genesis. Like God, Jesus too subdues the stormy waters, and thus takes the side of the powerless against impersonal brutality. Furthermore, in the next story, the references to “the abyss” and the lake to which the evil forces are banished also echo these creation myths; and the naming of the demons as “Legion” implies a critique of Roman military might.

Taking both these stories together, we also get a contrast to the story of Jonah, in which a xenophobic prophet is annoyed at God’s tendency to transgress ethnic and religious boundaries out of love. Jesus, like Jonah is asleep in the storm, and wakes up to still it. But unlike Jonah, Jesus willingly enters into foreign territory—the sort of place that has unkosher beasts hanging about—and while he is there, he makes all the difference in the world to a despised and marginalised man.

Thus, in two short stories, Luke associates Jesus closely with God; subverts physical and political power; and reminds us of the boundless love of God.


As ever, things—texts—are not what they seem at first.

The world of ideas is full of creation myths that are not about the beginning of things; and miracle narratives that are not about prestidigitating prophets. There is poetry, and not just propositions; there are stories, and not just soundbites.

And so it is with the Christian faith, and its sacred text.

The Bible speaks, frankly, about unbelievable things, but they are not unbelievable because science or historical scholarship say that they are.

The absurdity of the Christian faith runs deeper. Its claims are about an incomprehensible God who makes the world for no reason out of love, and—even more incomprehensibly still—dies in the world and at the hands of the world for much the same reason.

What to make of all of this?

Who knows?

But those of us who want to make something out of this return to these stories and songs, again and again.  We are never really done with them. And, thank God, they are never done with us.

Sermon: November 23rd 2014

24 11 2014


Matthew 25:31-46

1 Cor 15:20-28

Ezekiel 34:11-17

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in their own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father.  Words from St. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

So here we are, at the end of the Church’s year. It seems like ages ago, the solemnities of last Lent leading into the rapturous joys of Eastertide. Our memories of those powerful liturgies on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Paschal Vigil are inevitably dimmed behind the shrouds of Ordinary Time, behind the busynesses of our ordinary lives.

Here we are, at the end of the Church’s year. It seems that we can already see and hear and smell Christmas. Or, perhaps, cheap imitations and commercial appropriations of the holy season. Between the soaring gravity of Remembrance Sunday and the building haze of cheap tinsel and kitsch yuletide pop music, it is all too easy to skip Advent altogether, to miss the company of the holy family, waiting, peaceful and strong.

All things considered, the Feast of Christ the King is well-placed, at this otherwise forgettable end of the Church’s year. It serves us well as a timely reminder of our primary allegiances, as easily distracted as we are by the other ways we mark our time: the ends of financial years and election cycles, the ends of school terms and sports seasons.

The Feast of Christ the King is well-placed—with Christmas before us and Holy Week behind us—between birth and death, life and new life. Here and now, we are reminded that Christ, whose undignified beginning is matched only by his shameful end, (Christ) is in the midst of us and at the heart of all things, is our source and our beginning, is our end and our destination.


As, in their great wisdom, the putters-together of the lectionary make clear, the Feast of Christ the King is, among other things, an occasion to reflect on the nature of power, and God’s and our relationship to power.

St. Matthew’s vision puts our treatment of the hungry, thirsty, naked, and bound—that is, the powerless—at the centre of Christ’s judgement between the righteous and the condemned. This text is a riff on Ezekiel’s depiction of the Lord who, while seeking the lost and bringing them home, while tending to the weak and injured, also promises to obliterate those who unjustly enjoy abundance and strength. St. Paul’s rhetoric is even more blunt: he tells it to us straight, that Christ will come and destroy every rule and authority and power, especially death.

All of which is to remind us that our confession of Christ as King is not the endorsement of the kinds of activities we typically associate with sovereignty, not a sort of religious jingoism that revels in strength and abundance, power and authority. Christ’s power is not Caesar’s power, not Pilate’s power, not Herod’s power, not even Caiaphas the high priest’s power, which is ultimately the power of death, the power to execute dissidents and rabble-rousers and blasphemers. To the contrary, to confess that Christ is King is to abandon our pathetic quests for these pale facsimiles of power, whether physical or psychological, personal or political. Or at least to recognise their insignificance, and potential for abuse and corruption.

To be confronted by Christ the King is to have our group identities, from which we typically derive such power, relativized, lest they collapse into idolatry. Our churchmanships and nationalisms alike, our political partisanships and brand loyalties alike; we are—before the throne of the Son of Man’s glory, that is the shadow of his cross—jolted out of the lulls of our mistaken identities as cogs in the machines of machiavellian politicians and the robber barons of global consumer capitalism.

On this the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe (as it is officially called), we must be clear that this Christ the King of the Universe is the same “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” who conquers, not by taking up arms, but by having his arms bound to planks in blood and iron and rust; this too is an indictment of power as practiced in political playgrounds wherever they have been poisoned by humanity’s most pitiable weaknesses, anxieties, and insecurities. Hungry, thirsty, naked, and bound, this King dies for his people to defeat death, the fear of which drives so much of our futile quests for self-assertive power.



If Christ is our King, then our lives must look very different than if we were instead governed by some other set of allegiances.

If Christ is our King, then Pilate is not, he for whom violent force is the price of some cheap imitation of peace.

If Christ is our King, then Caiaphas is not, he who applied the utilitarian calculus, and concluded that it is good for one man to die for the sake of his national security.

If Christ is our King, then Caesar is not, nor are the coins that bear his image. Neither governmental stability nor financial freedom feature in the eschatological hopes of the faithful. Which is not to say that politics and economics are irrelevant. On the contrary, it is to affirm the centrality of Christ—and thus of the hungry, thirsty, naked, and bound—in our political and economic lives, and to marginalize the interests of lobbyists and marketeers.

If Christ is our King, then our loyalties can be taken for granted by no one: neither Visa nor Mastercard, neither Oxford nor Cambridge, neither Arsenal nor Liverpool, neither the Labour Party nor the Conservative Party. The Church is neither a voting block nor a consumer category; neither a fan club nor an old boys’ club. It is the risen body of the crucified criminal who is, at the same time, the King who ever arrives to defeat darkness and death, who will seek the lost and bring them home, who will feed us justice and peace. The Church is—we are—by the grace of God, the body of Christ the King, taken and broken and blessed and given to the world. We had better behave like it.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: November 5th 2014

6 11 2014

Sermon for Keble College Chapel


Isaiah 2:1-11

Matthew 2:16ff

Religion is often said to be a sort of psychological crutch, a convenient source of comfort that lulls us into a false sense of security, that dulls our senses against the harsh reality that life is nasty, brutish, and short. Alas, this analysis is not far off the mark. After all, the gospel—the central Christian message—is supposed to be good news; that is just what the word means. Christian faith is, in some sense, about how things are better than they might appear, how things will get better than they are now. But such talk of beatific visions at the end of our journeys through vales of tears can, if we are careless, lead to a kind of moral resignation and complacency.

The gospel is good news, but it is bad news before it is good news. That is to say that the gospel is an attempt to confront us with the human condition in ways that may be neither comforting nor convenient. Furthermore, the vantage point of the gospel narratives—beginning as they do with the birth of a peasant child—is not from the privileged arena of medieval academies or Victorian pulpits, but from the margins, the Jewish backwaters of the Roman Empire.


When King Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men gone to visit the newborn Christ, he was furious. And in his rage he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem; any child two years old or younger.

We are often tempted to breathe a sigh of relief here, because at least Jesus survives. And to us—as to Herod—the other children are collateral damage, anonymous and faceless, to be forgotten as soon as their narrative purpose is fulfilled. But the gospel forbids such callousness about the lives of innocents killed at a tyrant’s whim. After all, it is not as though Jesus is really spared in the end. Far from achieving the political power Herod feared, Jesus ends up misunderstood and betrayed and captured and flogged and killed. He joins the anonymous infants, albeit thirty years late; and if his murderers had their way, he too would have been forgotten, marginalised.

This then is the bad news: that our insecure quests for power are inevitably corrupting and damaging. Few of us are—like Herod and Pilate—in positions to pass death sentences, but we nevertheless impose our jealous wills on others, if not by physical force, then by other, perhaps subtler, forms of coercion and manipulation. Then again, in liberal democracies and market economies, we—the global 1%—are the oligarchs and tyrants, the select individuals whose desires move governments and multinational corporations. In his desire for a sort of power, Herod orders infants killed; in his desire for a sort of peace, Pilate orders Jesus executed. In our desire for cheap gadgets, we order the enslavement of anonymous foreigners. In our desire for sex, we order the exploitation of women and men whose names we do not know or will not remember. In our desire to consume more calories than we know how to obsess over, we order the destruction of natural habitats and the torture of animals. Thus, in our own little (and therefore insidious) ways, our insecure quests for self-assertion lead us to hurt people, to strain relationships, to participate in grave injustices.

In the face of this stark state of affairs, what the gospel offers is not just the sweet assurance that “in days to come” things will be different, that one day many people shall come and walk in God’s path and the haughty and proud shall receive their comeuppance. One day, but not today; perhaps not even on this side of eternity, but on the other, with a slice of pie in the sky by and by. To think of the Christian hope solely in these terms makes us complacent, if not complicit in the horrors of the world. Prophecy can and must be read differently, as commands rather than passive predictions about the future. Prophets are not fortune-tellers, after all. Thus, when Isaiah says that one day “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks”, we should hear God telling us to beat our swords into ploughshares; our gluttony into generosity, our narcissism into love, our passive aggression into truth. One day we shall do these glorious things, and why not today?


The gospel is good news, and the good news is not just that we will eventually be rescued from ourselves, some day later rather than sooner. But it is the confidence that the world is, in the final estimation, good; not only because God made it, but also because God is, in Jesus, making it good. God is—in humanity; in the humanity to which Jesus belongs perfectly and to which you and I belong imperfectly; God is in us—making the world good. The doctrine of the Incarnation, which provides the context for infancy narratives like this one tonight provides the basis for a kind of theological humanism that is neither pollyannish about our ability to pull ourselves up by our own moral bootstraps, nor complacent about being saved by an interventionist God, nor cynical because it sees people as inherently and hopelessly sinful. What the gospel provides is a hopeful confidence in the God who elects to work through us, fallible though we are, meandering though our moral journeys are.

In other words, the good news is—like prophecy—also a command, a call to “come…walk in the light of the Lord”, to “get up and go” into the world to make some prophecies come true.


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