Sermon: December 25 2016 (Christmas)

Christmas Day

Isaiah 52: 7-10

Hebrews 1: 1-6

John 1: 1-18

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.

Words from the Gospel according to St John, the first chapter.

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

And the Word became flesh.

The doctrine of the Incarnation is Christianity’s beating heart. From it flows our understanding of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; our view of the sacramentality of things; our vision of what it means to be human, made in God’s image. Without the Incarnation, the Resurrection is the little more than a parlour trick and the Church little more than a fan club.

It violates my anthropological intuitions to say so, we who are so allergic to claims to cultural uniqueness: but there is nothing quite like the Incarnation anywhere else, this idea that God—the God who made all things, and who upholds the whole universe—this idea that this God of infinite power is born a human boy, wet and screaming, nursing and sleeping, teething and throwing tantrums; that God grows up, gets grubby and grumpy, nauseated, constipated, gets himself killed. This is—I don’t know—something else. A hint half guessed, a gift half understood, or not at all.

I mean, gods that are like people are dime a dozen. Zeus and Thor, Shiva and Guan Yin, even Yahweh in the old days, are all anthropomorphised. Frankly, except on our very best days, even the God we imagine is likely a very powerful man. And shapeshifting gods are common too, including those who temporarily adopt human form. Zeus did this, of course, to nefarious ends; a bizarre passage in the Poetic Edda has Odin accusing Loki of having born children and “milked cow” as a woman on earth; even our own Book of Tobit has the Archangel Raphael take on human appearance to journey with the eponymous protagonist’s son, Tobias. But none of this is quite the doctrine of the Incarnation, which begins not with a humanoid god, but with a God radically other, so unlike anything in the world that the divine is beyond knowing and certainly beyond telling. God is the mystery to which all things owe their being, and yet it is this God who comes and shares in our fragility and finitude. And how fragile and finite indeed. Sea turtles break out of their eggs, and immediately dash for the ocean. Giraffes can walk within hours, despite their awkward gangliness. Human neonates, in contrast, are unable to lift up their own heads for the first two months of their lives. The Christ-child is, like all children, utterly dependent on others. This, we are shown rather than told, is what God is like: a baby in a manger, a man on death row.

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Of course, this is absurd. It makes no sense. Except that it is the only thing that really does make sense against a world in which might makes right; the value of things is reducible to their utility; and even people are means to our ends. The Incarnation is a repudiation of these poisonous ideas, lodged in our brains and our bones, our societies and their structures.

This is what true power looks like, not military might, nor media manipulation by monied interests, but a newborn in a world where infant mortality at the time is best estimated at 30%. It’s a crapshoot, whether Jesus would have made it to adulthood, and then we killed him by popular vote.

This is the value of the world, such that the God who, by definition, has no use for it, made it anyway and then made it home, became part of it. How dare we treat it merely as our pantry, our gas station, our playpen, our theatre of war?

This is what a human being is worth, a homeless foreigner, a boy born out of wedlock, a criminal, tried and executed. The heir of all things, who reflects the glory of God, who bears the very stamp of God’s nature.

The Incarnation makes moral sense, then, but in ways that run against our entrenched intuitions, either endowed upon us by our biological heritage or calcified by our cultural history. Evolutionary theorists tell us that the strongest survive, by which they definitely do not mean those who lay down their lives for others. Economists have no other way to conceptualise value except in terms of use. Psychologists have shown through decades of research that prejudice—suspicion and derogation of the other—is all but inevitable, baked into the way we process social information. The Incarnation renders none of these claims empirically false: it is not a scientific theory, after all. But it is a response to such a world as this that, far from escaping into denialism or cynical apathy, enters directly into these economic, political, psychological, and biological realities. The Incarnation is therefore an invitation for us to be defiant in hope, to resist being overcome by our own darkness, the darkness of the world around us. It is into this world that Christ is born, which comprehended him not, knew him not, received him not. And yet, the light shines. Perhaps this too is absurd, but if so, it is a necessary absurdity. To whom else can we go? Here is the Word of eternal life.

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The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth and from his fulness have we all received, grace upon grace and one day eye to eye we will see the return of the Lord.

In the meantime, it is the first day of Christmas, and there are—sons and daughters of the most high—(there are) good tidings to bring, peace and salvation to publish. There is a Word we have received, to bring light to the world.

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

Sermon: November 20 2016 (Christ the King)

This sermon was delivered at Queen’s College, Oxford for evensong.

1 Sam 8.4-20
John 18.33-37
It’s been a rough year. Remember when the most heartbreaking thing about 2016 were the deaths of beloved celebrities?

And then Brexit happened. Look, I don’t care how you voted, and how you justified it to yourself to help you sleep at night, but that referendum dug up some proper ugliness in this country. The campaign disregarded facts, and exploited the insecurities of the economically marginalised in an effort to scapegoat people who looked and sounded different from the nostalgic visage of old Britannia. The aftermath included a burst of hate crime, against ethnic and religious minorities; it did not include more funding to the NHS.

Sovereignty!, we demanded. Whatever the hell that means. What I know is that life got a whole lot worse for immigrants and ethnic minorities over here. It’s hard not to take that personally.

And then Trump happened. And that was much worse.

Freedom!, our American cousins are wont to cry. Whatever the hell that means. What I know is that the Ku Klux Klan are celebrating over there, and diverse groups of people—immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, Hispanics, LGBTQ folk—are being intimidated, harassed, and even assaulted. Far from being the promised champion of the working class, Donald Trump has now populated his transition team with corporate consultants and lobbyists. If the swamp has been drained, it is being refilled with orange Kool-Aid.

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Christians almost invariably say insipid things about politics. The sovereignty of God, for example, is often used as a means to justify the current regime. Vox Populi, vox Dei, and therefore Donald J. Trump is God’s chosen, who works in mysterious ways. Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, for Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world, we say, as a convenient means to disengage from political action. But such sloganising—such memefication—is tantamount to the abuse of theological language. Make no mistake: there can be nothing Christian about casual and convenient complicity with bigotry and bullying.

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The Bible is iffy on the relationship between Church and State.

The First Book of Samuel narrates Yahweh’s—or, should we say, Samuel’s—displeasure at the shift from theocracy to monarchy. But it is not as though Israel became a secular state. Samuel is told to listen to the people…but also to tell them what they want. Samuel: the Steve Jobs of ancient Israelite realpolitik.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Jesus, a Jew in Roman-occupied Palestine: he couldn’t be further from the centre of political power than Samuel was at its heart. There was no king but Caesar, and his vassals, including Herod’s family, who reigned over Judea at the pleasure of his majesty the Emperor.

Are you the King of the Jews? There was, of course, no such thing at the time. Herod the Great, to whom the title once belonged, was long dead, and his jurisdiction split among his male offspring: no surprises there. It was, in that sense, a trick question.

My kingdom is not from this world. There it is: the prooftext of Christian political apathy, which is really not so different from hipster cynicism. We are above the fray, too cool to believe that government can ever be anything but a stumbling block to be overcome by clicking things, or whatever people do these days.

And yet: You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

With that, Jesus seems to come back to Samuel’s position. This political criminal, with the nerve to claim that—unlike the Herodians whose titles even required the Caesarian stamp of approval—the Christ’s kingship is his birthright, is truth itself, and we had better heed his voice.

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The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. That’s what this feast day is called, just in case we had any doubts about the scope of our moral and political concerns. You would be forgiven for mistakenly thinking that the Church is only interested in where one puts one’s genitals, given her well-publicised obsessions.

This is not to say that the Church should be the Labour-Party-at-Prayer. The sovereignty of Christ relativizes all our group alignments, whether to political party or nation-state or ethnic group, or even family. We are first members of Christ’s body, who was crucified and is now seated at the right hand of God the Father. And, even as the Feast of Christ the King marks the end of the Church’s year, Christ is our end, our goal, our bottom line; there can be no other. Therefore, Christian political action cannot be a means to any other end, least of all grasping for political power for ourselves. Rather, if Christ is our goal, then our political action—our voting, our campaigning, our protesting—must embody Christ, whose mission was to the poor and marginalised and oppressed, who gave himself up for their sake.

If Christ is King, we cannot vote to prosper ourselves at the expense of the poor and needy, either here or abroad.
If Christ is King, we cannot vote to take the lives of anonymous others far, far away, just to make us feel safe.
If Christ is King, we cannot vote to restore some imagined past, excluding those who fail to look or sound like us.
If Christ is King, we must stand with and for the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed, long before we fight for ourselves.

There will, of course, never be a political candidate or party or platform that is unequivocally good. After all, we are none of us unequivocally good. Christians make the mistake of thinking that our moral choices are between right or wrong, when they are in fact mostly damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t decisions. And yet, moral disengagement is not an option for us who are in the world, even though our kingdom is not from it. We are not called to be above the fray, but to be mired in the clay, to be an infant in a manger, a voice in the wilderness, leaven pervading bread, beaten and bloodied on a cross.

I make no apology to the 81% of white evangelical voters (58% of Protestants more generally and 52% of Catholics) when I say that Hillary Clinton was far and away my preferred candidate, for all the reasons I have stated, and that support for Donald Trump is unconscionable for Christians. But even had Clinton won, the Church would still have work to do, leaning, pushing against her government’s warmongering, delegating of power to corporate interests, and dilly-dallying over environmental protection.

But the next leader of the so-called free world is a buffoon who, regardless of his own views, demonstrably inspires hateful people and hateful actions. A lot of people are scared right now, and I don’t blame them. The UK and US is an increasingly hostile place for immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, Hispanics, women, LGBTQ persons. Economic disparities are ever widening here at home and elsewhere. There are a lot of vulnerable people. If Christ is our King, then our concern for the people he loves must not remain at the level of pious platitudes. Go, as we say at the end of every Mass; go in peace and love. There’s work to be done.

Sermon: May 8 2016

John 17:20ff

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

The first step is admitting that we have a problem.

It didn’t take long for us to start bickering, though I suppose it took a little longer before we split up for good…or ill. And now, here we are, with our various divisions: east and west, Catholic and Protestant, mainline and evangelical, episcopal and congregationalist. It is impossible to count how many Christian denominations there are, but the point is that there are more than one.

There is disunity, and there is no sense pretending otherwise. We are, they say, one in spirit, which just seems like another way of saying that we are not really one at all. The unity of the Church, they say, is an eschatological reality, which just seems like another way of saying that it’s not a reality at all.

Or rather, these are convenient slogans that we use to exculpate ourselves, to excuse ourselves from actually attempting reconciliation. But this is surely an abuse of theological categories. The Church is indeed spiritually united, but this is no reason to cease our ecumenical endeavours, any more than the real spiritual freedom of Christian slaves should have led us to abandon the abolitionist movement, as many slavers conveniently argued back in the day. The vision of the Church united is indeed an eschatological one, but this too is no reason to stop working toward it on this side of eternity; after all, all our moral visions are eschatological, and yet we strive to do better here and now, or we ought to, anyway. 

There is disunity, and there is no sense pretending that it’s not a scandal, a crisis of Christian credibility. One among many, to be sure, but still, I think, a crucial one. The modern ecumenical movement arose out of concerns that denominational diversity would confuse the poor pagans and heathens in foreign, newly colonised, lands. And these concerns, while patronising, were not totally unfounded. Even growing up in Malaysia in the 1990s, I was bemused about how the evangelical Methodists were suspicious of the charismatic Baptists, and how both were suspicious of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Roman Catholics in equal measure. These Christians, they seemed to enjoy splitting up.

The broken-upness of the Church is a scandal and a crisis, and this is not least because balkanisation and insularity has never served any organisation well. Given the abuses of power that have recently been brought to much-needed light, one would think that this is a lesson well learned by now. Especially for an organisation so pruriently obsessed with the personal relationships and break-ups of individuals, it smacks of hypocrisy that we are not more concerned with relationships at ecclesial levels.

The first step is admitting that we have a problem. All the other steps involve doing something about it.

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Alas, so much of what passes as ecumenical activity–like so much religion more generally–is frightfully dull. It is difficult to get excited about gatherings of polite people trying very hard not to openly disagree. And it is not as though ecumenical groups are unaware of this shortcoming. Recently, I saw a headline in the News section of the Churches Together in England website that read “Boring but beneficial”, describing a new constitution for local groups. It was, I am sure, someone’s attempt at self-deprecating humour, but might have hit the mark a bit too well.

And yet, of course, we are woefully under-selling the modern ecumenical movement if we assume that it’s all instant coffee and superficial cordiality. As I have already mentioned, the modern ecumenical movement began as a missional movement. And this is not just to say that it was  concerned with evangelism or proselytism, which of course it was. Rather, it is to say more generally that it was an outward looking phenomenon. The goal was to be one for the sake of the world, not least when the world was torn asunder, first by the Great War and then by its yet darker sequel. The world is still torn, of course; and so the need has not changed, and our call is to come together to meet it. Therefore, the question with which we are faced is this: what does the gospel compel us, together, to do, in this time and place?       

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We–Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Pentecostals, ad infinitum–(we) disagree on moral and political issues: this much is obvious to all of us. But it is not as though the disagreements are only between denominations: even within our own churches there are diversities of positions on any number of ethical topics. And yet, here we are, regularly worshipping and working together for the sake of the world, at least on a good day, at least when we are not defensively gazing at our navels, at least when we are not threatening to split up ourselves. There is no denying our differences, but there is, equally, no point in fetishising them. 

The fact of the matter is that we agree on much. And, if so, we can do much, and should and must, do much, together. Complete ecumenical agreement has never been a prerequisite for cooperative social action, and may well be its consequence. There is a relevant piece of advice that psychologists often dispense to the parents of adolescents: we tell them to cook together, or to engage in some other kind of joint activity in which parents and children stand side-by-side, rather than face-to-face. This has a way of improving the conversation, opening both sides up to free and frank talk. Churches are, in many ways, like adolescents.

There is, in meta-ecumenical reflections, a tendency to worry that ecumenism descends into mere humanistic do-goodery, but this anxiety seems misplaced. Woe be to us, if the thing we worry about is doing too much good together. Whether feeding the poor together or caring for the sick together or tilting against the windmills of injustice, violence, and oppression together will lead to inter-communion, I cannot say: but it is not as though this kind of cooperation would be a waste of time, even if it didn’t. The poor will be fed; the sick will be cared for; evil windmills will be toppled. And we will have done this work of the gospel, hands joined, even if gingerly.

We agree on much, I don’t think it is pollyannish to say. We agree on more than we want to admit, perhaps. There is a vanity, as Freud used to say, in small differences. And if the freedom that Christ won for us is meant to achieve anything, surely it is meant to defeat the narcissistic insecurities that compel us to drive wedges between ourselves. The Pope’s response to Donald Trump’s immigration policy should burn our hearts also: “a person who thinks only about building walls … and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel”.

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So, what now? We turn up, together. Maybe not to lowest common denominator prayer meetings and tepid talks in cold church halls, but to soup kitchens and protests and sit ins and refugee camps. The Churches Refugees Network, the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, Christian Aid, Church Action on Poverty, the Gatehouse here in Oxford, based just down the road at St Giles’s: there are any number of ways to work side-by-side other Christians in ways that that go beyond mere symbolism and tokenism. The afore-mentioned Churches Together website is a good source of information.

To be sure, not all our social action has to be through Christian groups, but our Christian ecumenical activity, if it is to have legs–if it is to get hearts racing and fists pumped–has to involve action. So, off we go. Go, in peace, together, to love and serve the Lord. Amen.

Sermon: April 3 2016

Readings

Acts 5:12-16

Revelation 1:9-13, 17-19

John 20:19-31

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Christ is risen, and now everything has changed; but, of course, nothing has changed.

Christ has risen, and Rome has fallen, but in her place have risen empire after empire, each one repeating that age old trick of dressing up thuggery in the respectability of marble busts and fine bone china.

Christ is risen, but the poor are still with us, as indeed he himself said they would be; this time, however, we have not wasted the choice nard to anoint his feet, but have instead stored up riches for ourselves under the eschatological vision that wealth trickles down. Meanwhile, since Good Friday last week, approximately 180,000 people around the world have died of hunger or hunger-related causes.

Christ is risen; meanwhile, we are witnesses to another kind of resurrection, of the old time demagoguery that appeals to our basest prejudices and insecurities. The most effective tool in the arsenal of the craven warmonger is the fear of the other, and boy do we fear the other. Thus, for every side of every bout of armed conflict, young men and women give up their lives, and all we have to show for it is an ever bloodier mess. First, it was the Jews we feared, and since then we have found others, and the cycles of preemptive and retaliatory violence have gone on unimpeded as the Neros of the world play on.

Christ is risen, and now everything has changed; but, of course, nothing has changed. Or, at least, we haven’t; not enough, not nearly enough.

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And yet, this—this sordid state of affairs in which we find ourselves, and which is of our own making—is precisely why we need to continue celebrating Easter, why we need the Paschal light that pierces the darkness, and brings warmth into a cold world.

Truth be told, Christianity has much more in common with nihilism than it does with any whiggish view of history, in which the world is getting inexorably better toward some beatific vision of a just and peaceful society. To be sure, we hope for such a world, but it is not offered to us on a silver platter. After all, surely we know better than most, that it is the severed heads of the politically inconvenient that tend to be thus offered.

There are, in the Christian life, no pat certainties, no guarantees of projected outcomes: ours is a risky enterprise, a sojourn in the wilderness, destination unknown, but for the pillar of cloud by day, the pillar of fire by night, the rising star. Christ is our help and hope, without whom we are lost for sure, trapped in our world of credit default swaps and sweatshops and factory farming and military-industrial complexes.

Hope is the operative word. Easter—the Resurrection—is our sacrament of hope: it is our rejection of the world that has been sold to us on the cheap, in which violence is the cost of peace, and poverty the price of economic growth; in which our conveniences and comforts are bought with the blood, sweat, and tears of anonymous others, kept far, far away for fear that if they too are allowed to prosper, then we would suffer as a consequence; a pale facsimile of the world that God loves into being. Christ—the subjugated Jew; the son of man who has no place to lay his head; the prophet, marginalised and ignored—(Christ) is risen. Christ is risen, and we are raised with him: raised into peace and out of fear, and out of our locked rooms into the world, led by the Spirit whom we have received, to forgive the sinners and wash the unclean and heal the sick, we who are ourselves the beneficiaries of healing, washing, and forgiveness.

This is the difference then, between Christianity and nihilism; and it is a difference that means that there is, for Christians, no room at all for the apathy of resignation or complacent cynicism. Popular opinion to the contrary, we are not about pie-in-the-sky-when-we-die, but about bread today, the kingdom of God come, the will of God done, on earth as it is in heaven.   

This is, after all, the faith of Martin of Tours; of Genevieve of Paris; of Thomas Becket; of Francis and Clare of Assisi; of Catherine of Siena; of Bartolomé de las Casas; of William Wilberforce; of Elizabeth of Russia; of Maximilian Kolbe; of Edith Stein; of Dietrich Bonhoeffer; of Martin Luther King Jr.; of Albert Schweitzer; of Óscar Romero; of Dorothy Day. We stand with these, and so many more, men and women—all doubtless fallible and flawed—but nevertheless beacons of the light of the Risen Christ. We have a great cloud of witnesses who have leaned against the windmills of conquering warlords and power-hungry kings and slave-traders and bigots and robber barons.

They—we—are Easter people, the people of the resurrection, the people who are called to have our candles held up high, to bring the hope that we have been given into the world that knows it not yet, not enough, not nearly enough. Therefore, in the light of the resurrection, let us gather in Solomon’s Porch, together with all the saints. And let the sick and unclean be carried to us—let us carry them, all those who suffer in body, mind, or spirit—and let not just our shadows fall on them but the Paschal light himself, who refuses to be extinguished, but lives forever and ever. Amen.

Sermon: January 17 2016

Readings

Isaiah 62:1-5

Ps 36:5-10

1 Cor 12:1-11

John 2:1-11

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

It all began with the Magi: pagans, turned by our tradition into wise kings, who first made him known to, of all people, Herod, the Roman client king of Judea. It seems now an ill-advised thing to have done, foreigners telling Herod that there is born another King of the Jews. In retrospect, “wise” might not quite be the right word for these astrologers. In any case, at this point, they knew about Jesus—from their study of the Scriptures, no less—but this does not quite count as “epiphany”. Epiphany requires encounter, requires meeting Jesus in the flesh, even in a manger. This is, of course, entirely unsurprising, given the central Christian confession of the Incarnation. The Church is nothing if not obsessed with physical, material reality. In that way, she is like God: John 3:16, and all that. And so it is that two Sundays ago we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany, during which we remembered the visitation of the Magi, which in turn marks the revelation of Christ to all the world, even to the Gentiles.

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Epiphanytide is one of those liturgically contentious seasons in the Church’s year: the Roman Catholics no longer really keep it, whereas Anglicans officially still do. Good Catholics that we are here at All Saints’, we’re with Rome, but it must be said that this move loses something from the ancient tradition that keeps together at one go the visitation of the Magi, the baptism of the Lord, and the miracle at the wedding at Cana. In all three, Christ is in some sense revealed to us, made known and real and present.

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This time last week, we remembered and celebrated the baptism of Jesus by John. Just like that, thirty years have flown by. The infant boy to whom the Magi brought their precious gifts is now all grown up, and we are unworthy to untie the thongs of his sandals. “Behold”, his eccentric cousin exclaims, “The lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world”. Jesus is, like the rest of us, baptised, after which—unlike for the rest of us—the heavens opened, the Spirit descended like a dove, and a voice said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”. Thus, Jesus’s identity—crucially, his relationship to the Father—is made known, even by the voice of God.

And then, as we have just heard, Jesus turned water into wine at the weeding at Cana, at the beginning of his ministry. John’s gospel asserts that this was the first of his signs, which revealed his glory, and led his disciples to believe in him. Serious stuff, to be sure. And yet, if the account of the wedding at Cana counts among the best-known miracle stories in the New Testament, it is at least in part thanks to Rowan Atkinson’s sketch from the 1980s. You may recall that, in this piece of comedic genius, Jesus also produced a white rabbit, sawed a woman in half (and renamed her Sharon), and cracked puns about being sick of the palsy. The crowd thus proclaimed, “Thou art indeed an all-round family entertainer”. The joke is only as ridiculous as it is representative of how many, many people—including Christians; especially Christians, perhaps—think about Jesus and his miracles. Despite knowing better, we often fall into the trap of believing that Jesus is a sort of conjurer of parlour tricks, whose power is best used for our comfort and convenience, if not quite our entertainment. It is tragicomically ironic that this story, meant to reveal some truth about Jesus—his glory, as St John puts it—now represents one of our crassest and most common theological failures.

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If our celebration of the visitation of the Magi points to the kingship of Christ, and our celebration of his baptism points to his divine sonship, what does it mean to remember the wedding at Cana?

In the water made wine, the new creation was revealed at the wedding feast. Poverty was turned to riches, sorrow into joy.

So it goes in one of the Extended Prefaces for Epiphanytide. In other words, what is revealed is the world in which the Son of God is King, not only of the Jews, but of all people, and every time and place. In this new creation, things are turned on their heads. The best wine is served last, rather than first; plain water in pots for purity is made into that heady substance that moralists have in every age cautioned against. This is not to say that Jesus is some kind of weird contrarian, violating expectations just for kicks. Rather, it is to recall the absurdity of grace, the unbounded generosity of God. The central event of this absurd grace is, of course, not this miracle itself nor the wedding during which it occurs. The water and the wine point beyond themselves. There is, for Christians, no thinking about the conjunction of Jesus and wine that does not immediately lead us through the Eucharist to the Cross, the paradigmatic locus of grace. St John writes of this first sign that it reveals Christ’s glory, and we can see why. In John’s gospel, the glorification of Christ is his crucifixion: this first sign thus foreshadows and makes known that final event, which is the very beginning of the new creation.

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Finally, there is, I think, something fitting about the way in which Epiphanytide and Ordinary time bleed into one another in the confused way that it does. After all, the revelations we claim for all three events—visitation, baptism, and wedding miracle—are also to be found in the every day and the apparently unremarkable. It is, after all, to water and wine—not just to timely conversions of the former to the latter—that we come to encounter God. The waters of baptism and the Eucharistic wine are for us portals to the new creation that is not a different place but this very place transformed by self-giving love, even the love that dares to die for the sake of thieves and traitors.

By the mystery of this water and wine        

may we come to share in Christ’s divinity         

who humbled himself to share in our humanity. 

Amen.

Sermon: July 26 2015

Readings

2 Kings 4:42-44

Ephesians 4:1-6

John 6:1-15

There has, since as early as the 4th century, been a church on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. The Church of the Multiplication as it currently stands is not, it must be said, a particularly attractive building from the outside, having been built toward the end of that architectural dark age that was the 1960s to the 1980s. Fortunately, some of the beautiful 5th century mosaics have survived, the most famous of which is of course the familiar one of the loaves in the basket, flanked by two fish, located just in front of the altar. Under the altar is set a large limestone rock, said to be the very spot on which the miracle happened. As with nearly all such precise biblical archaeological claims, it is difficult to know what to say about historical accuracy here, except that it does not much matter.

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In June this year, the church was vandalised and, it seems likely, set on fire by Zionist extremists. The graffiti, left in red painted Hebrew, said, “False idols will be smashed”. The response from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish authorities came in swiftly, and with one voice, condemning the aggression of the extremists, and appealing to the Israeli government to do more to protect the different religious groups in the region. We don’t hear nearly enough stories about different religious groups coming together like this, and when we do, it is almost always in the wake of some kind of violent conflict. That’s a shame.

For all the social progress we have allegedly made, there is still an intolerable antipathy across sectarian religious lines, not just in dry and dusty lands far away, but even here and on the neighbouring continent. Consider the arson attacks on mosques in Sweden earlier this year. Again, masses of people came out to disavow these atrocities, but the fact is that such acts are all too common. In Germany, there were over 70 attacks on mosques between 2012 and 2014. In France, in the week after the Charlie Hebdo shooting, there were 54 anti-Muslim incidents reported. Closer to home, consider the negative stereotyping and verbal abuse that British Muslims—particularly British Muslim women—face much more than we might realise, or care to find out about. And while the mass media moguls and their chattering classes are focused on the horrific acts of extremist Islamist groups, let us not forget that there are also violent extremists who claim Christian and Jewish identity.

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The story of the feeding of the five thousand is, as we have heard, an unmistakably Jewish story. Elisha feeds 100 men during a famine, with twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain, and had some left over. St John, not to be outdone, has Jesus feeding 5,000, with considerably less food, and considerably more left over. This will not, as we know, be the last example of petty one-upmanship in the sordid history of inter-faith relations within the Abrahamic traditions; indeed, it isn’t even the only case in St John’s gospel of what might be read as an incipient Christian anti-Semitism. 

And yet, and yet, the story of the feeding of the 5,000 is unmistakably a Jewish story. And St John’s gospel is unmistakably a Jewish text. And early Christianity is unmistakably a Jewish sect. Similar things might be said about the relationship between Christianity and early Islam. By the by, Christians tempted toward supersessionist narratives in which Christianity has replaced Judaism might want to reconsider, given Islam’s historical location and her current increasing popularity.

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There is one body and one Spirit, one hope [to which we are called], one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.

This lyrical section of the epistle to the Ephesians is often cited in the context of ecumenical conversations among Christians. It is usually used to emphasise our similarities—the beliefs we share in common, for example—over our differences. As such, it might be somewhat less helpful for thinking through inter-faith issues. It is less clear that we share one hope, one faith, one baptism, and so forth with our Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu friends.

And yet, the implications of our commitment to the oneness of God should make a difference to our relationships with people with whom we significantly disagree theologically. This is not because there are no substantive disagreements across religious traditions, but because Christian orthodoxy is necessarily a generous orthodoxy. And this is because, as St Paul writes, “There is…one God…who is above all and through all and in all”. In other words, God is the one from whom all things have their existence, and who is therefore beyond all existing things, and therefore also beyond all manners of thinking and speaking about existing things.

There are, and have always been, two attitudes to take toward the unutterable mystery of God. The first is to refuse to speak at all; that is, to give in to the fear of blasphemy that is based on the odd notion that God’s feelings are somehow hurt by our failed attempts to talk about God. The second, which is the path the Church and her theologians have generally trodden, is to say as much as humanly possible, daring to exploit the intellectual and linguistic resources of every age and culture encountered by Christian people. This has always included Jews and Muslims, and now also includes a much larger variety of religious and cultural traditions. Without Moses Maimonides and Avicenna, there well may not have been Thomas Aquinas, or at least not as we currently have him. God only knows what our future blindspots will be if we now ignore or demonise or patronise our brothers and sisters from other faiths.

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We have, you and I and ours, much to repent, not least the pathetic defensiveness with which we cling to the false securities of a Christendom long gone. Religious fundamentalism—Christian or otherwise—is, almost always, a kind of death tremor.

We have much to repent; not least the failure to recognise that God is not first of all to be found in doctrinal statements about which we can agree and disagree more or less vehemently, but rather to be encountered—known, as it were, in the biblical sense, carnally—in the eating and drinking of his flesh and blood.

In this eating and drinking, we are committing ourselves to the kind of self-abnegation that Jesus himself demonstrated before the Sanhedrin and before Pilate. In the face of violence, we do not raise our swords. In the face of disagreement, we do not score cheap rhetorical points. In the face of moral criticism, we do not make lame excuses. Instead, we are called to a different ideal. Thus, the epistle to the Ephesians, the fourth chapter:

Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all the lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Sermon: April 12th 2015

Readings

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.