All in the eyes of the beholder??

Address for “Low Sunday” – 19 April 2020

“Seeing is believing” – those words echo down to us from the Ancient Greeks, and from many other thinkers and commentators in between.
And, shaped as we are by three centuries of Scientific Rationalism, it seems only logical that we trust what we see with our own eyes more than anything anyone else might tell us.
And this appears to be borne out by that account of Thomas – or doubting Thomas as he’s often called.
He’s heard the testimony of the other disciples, that THEY have seen Jesus, risen from the dead, but he won’t accept that testimony: unless HE sees Jesus for himself – sees his wounds and touches them.
Thomas wants empirical evidence before he believes – after all, seeing is believing!
And yet I’m not sure that’s necessarily what is happening here.
Even from a scientific perspective, the assertion that “Seeing is believing” seems overly simplistic.
For decades now, thanks to increasingly sophisticated technology, astronomers studying deep space have found themselves looking at things that existed millions of years ago, and having to make assumptions about what’s out there now. The distances involved are just too great for any of us to “see” what is actually there.
And, at the other end of the spectrum, Particle Physics has long worked with subatomic particles so miniscule that, again, no human eye could hope to “see” them in any meaningful sense of the word.
In both cases, then, rational scientists have developed theories based not so much on seeing actual “things” – observable objects – as on the effects that those supposed “things” have. We observe the way that space or matter behaves and what might affect that behaviour and make rational deductions about what is. More often than not, those deductions prove correct, or at least convincing, but it’s a long way from “seeing is believing” – from believing ONLY what can plainly be seen and tested. At the very least I’d want to suggest that the “believing” bit comes first – forming a plausible explanation in our mind’s eye and ten seeing if there is evidence around us to back it up.

And if that’s how the world of the science operates, what about “religion” and the nurture of faith?
Again we find ourselves dealing with things that can’t be seen – but which can be sensed very profoundly, in the core of our being. Sometimes we know, beyond doubt, new realities which we simply can’t put into words – let alone explain, to our own rational minds or to someone else.
I’m reminded of another familiar phrase –“faith is caught, not taught”, implying that Religious belief is NOT just about passing on information or trying to prove the historical truth of some Bible story or other. It’s far more about sensing what is truly good – and sensing what is truly God.
Thomas asks to see and touch Jesus if he is going to believe – but it’s actually what he hears that moves him: Jesus speaks to him, perhaps even speaks his name. Thomas knows then, beyond any doubts screaming away in his logical brain, that his IS his Lord and Saviour. Jesus calls and Thomas believes.
Now, as then, no amount of talking about the Risen Christ is any substitute for encountering the Risen Christ ourselves.
It’s interesting, I think, that this episode come in the middle of three similar encounters.
Last week it was Mary, at the empty tomb – distraught that her Lord is not there. Then she does see him, but doesn’t know him until he calls her name – then she believes.

Thomas is adamant that he will not accept that Jesus is risen unless he sees for himself what the others have told him. And then, when he does, it’s almost as if that doesn’t matter any more – what does matter is that Jesus is speaking, and speaking to him.

And then, next Sunday, we’ll hear about the disciples on the road to Emmaus – bemoaning the loss of Jesus, even though they are in fact talking to Jesus himself!
They see but do not believe: they do not know him, until he breaks bread, and speaks the words that he said to them at another supper – on the night before he died.

Seeing, it appears, is never enough – even those with rather better eyesight than mine – have a habit of overlooking the blindingly obvious or of choosing not to notice the things that don’t fit with what they already believe or want to believe.
Our logical, cautious minds have a tendency to keep us in safe, predictable territory – even when the world around us sings of the, as yet, unexplored life that God intends for us.

Mary, Thomas and the disciples on the road all testify to the reality of things that cannot be seen or touched – of those profoundly sensed truths that I spoke of earlier.
For us, as with Thomas, it’s not enough just to be told that Christ is Risen; it’s not enough to read it in the Bible, or see it depicted in religious art; nor was it enough, for Mary or Thomas, just to see Jesus the man.
Somehow we need to sense that it is true – it needs to “make sense” to us at some deeper level.

It is the flow of love – as Jesus speaks to his disciples – that dissolves their doubt and strengthens faith. They don’t really know how they know it’s him – somehow they just know that they know.

It’s that same “flow of love” to us that we need to sense in order to believe,
that flow of love from God to others, that we need to sense in order to recognise Christ at work among us; that flow of love to others that we must replicate – if we are to claim, with any credibility, to be Christ’s body now on earth and to make him known.
In the strange world of 2020 – perhaps all those things have become a little more challenging – cut off as we are from our normal mode of existence and our normal channels of communication.
Yet, as Mary, Thomas and the other disciples learned the risen Christ has a habit of surprising us – of appearing when we least expect him and in a guise that we may not at first recognise.
In the pregnant pause of this current lockdown – can we pay attention to all our senses and be shaped and reenergised by what we discover?
Can we still our troubled minds long enough, and often enough, to bathe in the goodness that is flourishing around us?
And, with the eye of faith, can we recognise there the Risen Christ – who even now walks among us and holds together all of us and all of creation?

May the peace of the Risen Christ be with you – today and always.
Amen

Easter Sunday Sermon 2020

“Breaking in” or “breaking out”?

Address for Easter Day 2020

Reading: Matthew 28: 1 – 10

There is a real mixture of emotions in today’s Gospel reading, I think: if anyone ever tells you that the Bible is boring, then I suspect they probably haven’t dipped into it very often!
In this story there’s real sadness – as the two Mary’s make their way to the tomb.
I suspect there’s also boredom – for the guards who’ve spent all night on sentry duty – watching over a dead man.
There’s anxiety – fear – for the women as they first see the guards sitting there, and for all of them when the angel makes his dramatic entrance.
And there’s a confusion of emotions as the angel explains things – hope battling with sheer disbelief; and even more so when Jesus himself appears – the women’s deep joy and their sense of unreality both vying for the top spot.
It’s really all too much to take in.

The same might possibly be said for us, as we live through the unchartered experience of lockdown. Perhaps we are wrestling with conflicting emotions, as we try to make sense of conflicting evidence and as we struggle to comprehend the enormity of it all.

For us there is sadness – at the lives that have been lost and loved ones separated.
There is boredom at times – perhaps as we fight our own instincts to enjoy the warmer weather by heading out into the countryside or off to the coast.
There is anxiety – as we wait to see how things will develop; as we wonder when things will start to get better.
We are encouraged. I’m sure, by the generous response of our neighbours to those who need help – delighted to witness a real flourishing of community spirit here – and yet, still it’s quite at hard at times to believe any of this is really happening at all!

The point of the gospel story is that what lies ahead for the two faithful women, is far better than either of them could possibly have imagined – out of the horror of Good Friday and the sadness of Holy Saturday comes new life, not just for Jesus, but for everyone and everything
And the similar challenge that faces us is to believe that, when this pandemic is over, we will not be faced with a struggle to get back to what we had before.
Through faith, we may instead find our way towards a better way of inhabiting this planet.
I promised to talk about the egg – which, on a normal; Easter morning, sits in pride of place at the front of the church just up until this point in the service.
And then I’d chose two children to carry the egg through the church to give everyone a sight, and possibly even a scent of it, (and hoping all the while that neither child is unusually accident prone!)
If I allowed them – to carry straight on and out of the doors – then they’d head home with quite a prized: enough chocolate for weeks!
What does happen, of course, is that other children then tale it in turns to crack the egg – so that it can then be broken further and shared out.
Unless it is broken – we can’t make sure that everyone will get a piece to eat later.

Jesus is broken on the Cross so that the sheer scale of God’s power to transform can be revealed – nothing is so devastating that it can destroy all hope – nothing is so terrible that it cannot ultimately be turned towards the good.

Fears have been expressed this week that economic and political systems across the world are breaking down – under the pressure of enforced lockdown in several countries.
And many of us are rightly concerned about what that means for our economy – whether our local businesses will survive; what the effects will be on my livelihood, my job, my savings, my pension?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful, then, just to step back to normality again – and get on with whatever our ordinary tasks may be?

And yet, as the women at the tomb discovered, what came just before may not be the best thing to hope for or aim for. The risen Christ was not the man they had known two days earlier– or at least not just the same man.
His resurrection changed the picture completely.
It is just possible that the creaking structures battling to remain in place today may break, to produce something more just and more stable, and not the financial black hole that some are dreading.

Forced to stay at home, members of sports teams and music groups are unable to meet to hone their skills in the usual way – and there will be real challenges ahead when they finally do meet together. And yet, as skills are re-learned, might there be an opportunity to shed bad habits; and perhaps to appreciate more fully the skills and contributions of others in the group – to really prize the team effort over personal ego.
And I guess that thought transfers to the Board room too.

Just now, some of us are lonely, some of us are frustrated because we cannot see the friends we normally spend our time with.
Some of us are suddenly dependant on neighbours we’d never met before – but whose kindness and concern are now our salvation.
There is so much good that can come out of that realisation – as again we really learn to value all those people and what they mean to us.

And, of course, there are places we can’t see at present.
Every month Google Maps provides me with a timeline of all the exciting places I’ve been to. And this week, in popped the summary for March.
It listed 3 great cities that I’d visited – Salisbury, Egham and Fovant (that well known metropolis).
And then it lists 3 highlights – Rivers leisure centre, the Garden centre and Lidl! Talk about living the dream!! And yet I really wouldn’t mind even half an hour in any of those places just now, just for a change of scene.
By being “grounded” in this way, though, might we learn to appreciate just how much there is on our doorstep – local facilities and natural beauty.
And might it lead us to think how we travel and how often? Could we use our cars less in order to keep the cleaner air that we’re now breathing?

The reason that you are now listening to my dulcet tones via the internet is that we can’t now gather in church – and that’s particularly hard for us on this most holy of days when we’d normally have a busy, joyful celebration.
Yet can we, by this grasp what it is to be what Pope John Paul II “an Easter People” –filled with the new life of the risen Christ, worshiping together, not just with the comforting familiarity of the “normal”, but with the boundless joy and expectation of the two faithful women on Easter morning?
We don’t know what life will look like in 2 months, 6 months, or a year’s time – but if the story of Easter tells us anything it is that there is no reason to assume that it will not be at least a pleasant surprise.
In these strange times, and in all circumstances we are called to celebrate and to witness to the power of Christ’s Resurrection:
for we are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song!

Easter Day

The Rt Revd Richard Chartres

Gospel Reading: John XX.11-18

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!

ON the Day of Resurrection, Mary had been drawn to the tomb, the place of death. The tomb was empty and no one, in ancient times, disputed that it was empty, although there were various theories about why it was so. Mary was weeping: “they have taken away my Lord”. She was looking towards the past at blessed hours spent in the company of Jesus, and at all the hopes that had perished on the cross.

But then she turned round. She turned in a different direction. In John’s Gospel, every movement is significant. By the time he had composed his account of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection, John had been meditating for many years on the meaning of these events. By narrating them again and again, inspired by the Holy Spirit, he had penetrated the surface of the story and uncovered the depths. Mary turned round and “saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus”.

The resurrection event obviously did not involve some resuscitated corpse, like the body of Jesus’s friend Lazarus that emerged after four days in the tomb. The raising of Lazarus is the climax in John’s account of the signs which Jesus performed during his earthly ministry. The Resurrection is significantly different. It is not the restoration of an old world or the resuscitation of a corpse but the breaking-in of something new.

Jesus asks Mary, “why are you weeping –- for whom are you looking?” There are various themes in John’s gospel which are repeated and developed, much like music. The very first words we hear from Jesus are addressed to the men who would become his first disciples: “What are you looking for?” Now, in this conversation with Mary, we see that the truth we are seeking is not so much ideas in the mind but rather what we discover in relationship with a person. “Who are we looking for?”

He calls her Mary. God “calls [us] by name”, as it says in the Confirmation service. By naming Mary, he opens her eyes and she turns once again.

Her eyes are open, but not fully, because she then calls him “Rabbouni”, an affectionate diminutive of rabbi — teacher. It is a word from the old life, and Jesus asks her not to cling to him as he was, because Resurrection brings into being a new reality. It is not any resuscitation of the old life. It is an earthquake, a new creation.

This new reality explains the transformation of the friends of Jesus. They had been so full of fear when he was arrested that they had all forsaken him and fled. After the resurrection, they were transformed into a world-converting community. After the empty tomb and the appearances of the transformed body, they were prepared to defy death rather than deny the truth of what they had witnessed.

In our day, we tend to ask questions about the resurrection as if it were simply a past event. Even if someone had taken a photograph of the actual moment, it is part of the “flatland” thinking that is second nature to us, only to be able to regard the resurrection as something past and separate from us. At best, we translate it into some inoffensive metaphor describing an inner emotional state in which winter gives way to spring.

In divine reality, of course, the world of individual bodies and separate events is embedded in a vast continuum in which body, mind and soul are interpenetrated by the Eternal Spirit. What God creates is not destroyed but is re-created and transformed.

The message that Mary was to communicate to the other friends of Jesus is, “Say to my brethren that I ascend to my Father and your Father and my God and your God”.

The earthquake of the resurrection opened a fissure in earth-time through which God’s future could stream into the world. We can be a part of this future by water and the spirit; being immersed in his death in baptism, and receiving the gift of the Spirit.  In the Spirit, which makes the risen Christ present to us, which reveals the truth in a person –- the human face of God — we discover that life in all its fullness comes not as we hoard up ourselves and set our hopes of happiness on accumulating things but when, in the power of his Spirit, we give up ourselves to one another and so bring into being a new world of possibility.

God so loved the world that he was generous and gave himself to us in the person of his human face, Jesus. Love for God is not so much an emotion as self-giving and generosity. Self-giving in the power of the Spirit is transformative.  This has been proved experientially in the lives of the saints, those who — as St Peter said – “did eat and drink with him after he rose from the dead”.

The day of resurrection has dawned, even as we practise social distancing in our own private spaces. It is accomplished. But the resurrection itself is also happening, and the resurrection is full of future hope in a world where we have only just begun to learn how to speak the language of humanity as God intends.

Being a Christian is not buying into a package of ideas about God; it is not signing up as a member of the churchy equivalent of the National Trust to preserve the memory of Jesus. It is immersing oneself in the power of the Spirit in a new creation.

Being a baptised and confirmed Christian means entering a new set of relationships in a transforming community, empowered and energized by the Holy Spirit, who is at work bringing into being the future that God intends.

This morning, as we are locked down in our virtual Galilees, we are all being called to be lively members of God’s transforming community. We are to be ready to spring from our locked rooms at a time of great promise and peril. Our very complex world is menaced by natural disaster and lethal hatred masquerading under the mask of religion. Alone, we can feel immobilized. What can we do against such huge threats? But as members of the spirit-filled, transforming community that the church is called to be, there is nothing that is impossible as we work together to enlarge that fissure through which God’s future is streaming.

As we cherish one another, making one another our work of art without oppressing anyone with our demands; as we own up to our weaknesses and needs, we begin to participate in the great dynamic of the love which is eternally exchanged between the Father and the Son through the Spirit. We become seized by invincible hope.

This morning we are not entertaining some idea but participating in a living reality. Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!

Holy Saturday Vigil

The Rt Revd Richard Chartres 

Readings: Romans VI.3-11; Matthew XXVIII.1-10

“IF we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

This is a night of contrasts. In the traditional ceremonies for this night, we assemble in the darkness outside the locked doors of the church, which symbolises the tomb of Jesus Christ. The new fire is struck from the flint, and the Easter light is kindled. The doors of the church are flung open, and we follow the Easter candle into the dim interior as the Exultet is sung.

This year, of course, the doors of the church will remain closed as we stay at home to prevent the spread of the virus. We can still meditate on the ancient words of the hymn of joy, which has resounded through the centuries on this night of nights:

“This is the night when you brought our fathers, the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt and led them through the Red Sea on dry land.

“This is the night when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin and are restored to grace and holiness of life.

“This is the night when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell and rose victorious from the grave.”

In the early church, this was the only night on which new members of the body of Christ — who had been preparing throughout the forty days of Lent — could finally be incorporated by water and the Spirit into the Church as living members of Christ’s own body.

Alas, as the poet Auden sadly acknowledged, the fervour cooled and the early Christians saw “their agape decline/into a late lunch with Constantine”. Perhaps this year, as we really begin in the gloom of the lockdown, we have a chance to revisit the way in which our Christian forebears saw the reality of human life.

We have to acknowledge that do not always make a very good job of living as human beings in all the splendour and freedom of a fully human life. But to move into the light we have first to see the darkness. To throw off the chains, we must first feel them. We are fond of believing that slavery and darkness are things that other people suffer from, whereas we stand on an enlightened eminence from which we can see and judge all other times and cultures. The Roman authorities and the religious authorities of Jesus’s own day thought very much the same.

Jesus Christ turns our view of light and darkness upside down. He reveals how our “enlightened” world is in reality “endarkened”. It is full of hidden persuaders — little gods, if you like — which teach us from our earliest years that we must look after number one, and that we can be happy if we accumulate more and more things.

Before long, these possessions can come to possess us. We cannot conceive of life without them, which is why a period of fasting and retreat could be so valuable if it is accompanied by prayer.

There is no possibility of escaping from the chains forged by our own desires simply by our own efforts. The void, if we leave our comfort zone, is simply too terrifying.

But God is at work, labouring to give us freedom and to initiate us into a fully human life. Far from being self-made men and women, in reality we are given our identity by others. We are given our names; our mother’s face broods over us — like the Spirit at the dawn of earth’s history — drawing out a response from the infant. We are recognised; we are loved into loving; we are given status, and worth – or, tragically, we are overlooked and condemned, and made to feel like dirt. We are given our identity by others.

It must also be true that we have been given the power to shape the identity of our neighbours, for good or ill. God first names our ancestor Adam –- which in Hebrew literally means “the earth man” — and Adam is charged with giving other creatures their names. We are all involved in this giving and receiving of names and identities.

In the springtime of the church, tonight was the night in which the newly baptised and confirmed entered the community of those who have been reborn in the Spirit; who have been caught up into the life of God, where this giving and receiving leads to freedom.

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son into the hands of sinful men. We have seen that, on the Cross, the Son gives himself to the Father. The Father is the Father because the Son who answers his call has given him his name. The Spirit enables creation to participate in this dynamic of giving and receiving.

This is God the Holy Trinity’s way of being: calling, responding, giving up myself to the other, participating in the mutual offering of identity and freedom.

Humanity is one of the languages which the persons of the Trinity use in communicating with one another and, by our initiation into the life of the Trinity, we are taught how to grow into our full humanity.

Every Holy Saturday we are called by name to deepen our commitment to a community in which we are involved in this work of giving and receiving freedom. We are to regard one another as “our work of art”, as St Hildegard of Bingen once said.

The community of the church is the work of God in which he is building the full stature of humanity. If we do not, together with God, make one another our work of art then much of each one of us remains missing and never comes to be. We are all in debt to one another. Each of us is commissioned to speak the other into being.

In the early church, the Lord’s Prayer — which begins with “Our Father” and asks for the forgiveness of our debts — was only given to those who had undergone preparation through Lent. The Lord’s Prayer was not, as it is in our day, the prayer known by nominal Christians, but was rather a precious gift, handed over on this night to those who had become fully initiated.

 

Good Friday

The Rt. Revd Richard Chartres

A meditation on the Cross from the Gospel of St Mark

Humanity brought to life by the humanity of God.
“IS it not evident that the Father accepts the sacrifice, not because he demands it or feels some need of it, but in order to carry out his own plans? Humanity had to be brought to life by the humanity of God. . . We had to be called back to him by his Son. Let the rest be adored in silence.” [St Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 45 for Easter]
Prayer
Almighty Father, look with mercy on this thy family for which our Lord Jesus Christ was content to be betrayed and given up into the hands of sinners and to suffer death upon the cross; who is alive and glorified with Thee and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and for ever. Amen.

Reading: Mark 14.53-72

Meditation: Introduction and the New Community.

ST Peter was given the gift of tears, and the gift to see himself as he was, without illusion. As we watch and pray together in our homes this Good Friday, in this strange year when life seems to be on hold, what is required is simple attention to the events which unfolded in Jerusalem that first Good Friday.
Let us follow the story as it is recorded by St Mark, whose gospel was probably the first of the four in the New Testament to be written down.
The events he describes have a firm anchorage in history, but revelation leads not so much to the acquisition of new facts as to the dawning of spiritual light. Revelation is enacted in our lives in the power of the Holy Spirit as we encounter Jesus Christ; as his story illuminates, and becomes a part of, our own story.
The bystanders in the High Priest’s court could not bear this revelation; they could not bear to look at Jesus, so they covered his face. Peter, in his frailty and betrayal, called to mind Jesus’s words, and he wept and saw himself straight.
Before the trial in the High Priest’s Court, while Jesus was enduring the agony in the garden of Gethsemane, the disciples are pictured heavy with sleep and Jesus says, to them and to us, Watch and Pray.

To be truly spiritual is like waking up and becoming more and more aware. Remain here and Pray — that is the request of Jesus. We are to be really present so that, if it is His will, the Spirit of God may touch us and disclose the word he has for us at this particular stage of our spiritual journey.

In our first scene, Jesus stands alone before the chief priests and their supporters in the Sanhedrin; later, he is alone before Pilate and the crowds. His followers have fled, and the chief apostle — Peter, the Rock – has three times denied knowing him. Jesus is alone.

All through the gospel of St Mark, we see Jesus in the midst of his friends and teaching the crowds who had turned out to hear him. He had gathered a band of men and women around him who were learning a new kind of life together in a community; they were his disciples — his pupils.

A mark of the community being assembled by Jesus was that its members were to share their resources, as they had done in the miracle of the five thousand. It was recognized that it would be hard for those “who trust in riches” [10.24] to enter the Kingdom.

Another feature of the new community which Jesus was bringing into being was that, although it had been foreshadowed in the Hebrew Scriptures, it was to embrace both Jews and Gentiles. It was to bridge one of the most profound divides in the ancient world. The five thousand who were fed remind us of the five books of the law of Moses, while the miracle which (in St Mark’s gospel) follows hard after — the feeding of the four thousand in Gentile territory — suggests a community which was called to extend to the four corners of the earth.

In our own day, with the growing inter-connectedness of all things with a global economy and communications system, we are searching for just such a community, knowing that the penalty for failure is that humankind will sooner or later unleash the mushroom-cloud we have conjured up and destroy ourselves. The call to this generation is to work urgently for one world, or face the possibility of no world.

We have been given two signs, revealed to this generation and no other one before us. Those signs are the mushroom-cloud, and the earth seen for the first time from outer space: a single globe, sapphire-blue and beautiful. That is the choice which confronts us –- the cloud, or the globe.

The new human solidarity which, according to Mark, Jesus begins to assemble does not only welcome into the community Gentile outsiders but also women and children as full members. At the same time, the leadership of the community was not to be of the familiar kind where rulers lord it over their subjects but “if any man would be first he shall be last of all and a servant [deacon] of all”.

All this would amount to little more than daydreams of utopia without the transforming energy which flows from a new intimacy with God. He taught his pupils to put aside the identities created by defining ourselves over and against other people. He lived close to the heart of the Father, and opened a door so that his pupils were equipped to pray “Our Father”.

At the heart of the community was to be a spiritual life centred on being attentive and doing the work of prayer. Watch and pray. It is Christ’s word to us this afternoon. And “when you stand praying, forgive” [11.25]. Let go of anger and disappointment. These are the pre-conditions for being built up in the great command to love God and our neighbours as ourselves [12.28].

But for the moment it all seems to have been in vain. The new community has disintegrated and fled. There is a dramatic and significant defection as Jesus is being taken to the High Priest’s house: “And a certain young man followed with him having a linen cloth cast about him over his naked body, and they lay hold on him but he left the linen cloth and fled naked” [14.51]. We shall see the young man and the linen cloth again before this story is ended. But for the moment let us accept that anyone who has not been tempted to run away from this scene, from this crucifixion, has never understood it, nor stood steadfastly beneath it.
Reading Mark 15.1-15

Meditation: The Powers

IN the last scene, Jesus stood alone. The community he had been building had disintegrated. They all forsook him and fled. Peter the Rock denied knowing hm. Now he is left alone with the powers that rule this present age.

Those who were responsible for Jesus hanging there upon the Cross were not spectacularly wicked. The chief priests and the scribes were the guardians of a highly developed moral tradition and a noble national story. Pilate was the representative of a system of government which united the whole Mediterranean world, and which guaranteed throughout the region a standard of peace and prosperity which was not attained again until the nineteenth century.

Both the Jewish Establishment and the Roman Procurator were playing the political game as it has existed since the beginnings of civilisation. They were disposing of a disturber of the status quo, without being too delicate about the means, while fobbing off the crowd with Barabbas (which literally means “Son of the Father”) — a chip off the old block; a real murderer, but one who, like revolutionaries through the ages, worked for a reversal of political roles but no profound change in the system of control and domination. We have learned the hard way throughout the 20th century that new Commissar is just old Czar writ large and even more ruthless.

Then the crowd, with their cries, recall the cries of the demoniacs in the first half of the gospel. The crowd is possessed by their experience of disappointment, economic hardship, and foreign rule. Out of their pain, manipulated by the priests and whipped up by Pilate, they cry out against their own hope in cynicism and disgust: “Crucify him!”

It is all so credible. This is the world we know; this is our world. There are areas of relative peace and plenty — like ours — preserved by a superiority of force which excludes the other world of need and insecurity. This is a world in which we have enough food to ensure that everyone is fed but we do not have the political will to do it. This is a world of huge achievements, and certainly preferable to a state of disorder and chaos. But this is also a world maintained at a cost to the poor, and repression of their attempts to revise their status.

This is the world, so familiar to us, that Our Lord entered. The Word of God coming into the world did not merely go about telling people to be nice to one another. Jesus Christ gave people an inkling of their true nature, and began to gather around him a new community. It was non-violent and inclusive; a community in which human beings would see and serve their deepest selves in one another because they had been caught up by Jesus to his level of awareness, close to the heart of the Father.

This truly revolutionary social enterprise amounted to a new creation, and the Powers which dominate the world as we know it recognised the threat which Jesus and his Kingdom posed.

St Mark continually points out that it was the demons who knew who Jesus really was while his disciples were in the dark. Our world is dominated by Powers, a word used frequently in the epistles of St Paul to designate the world rulers of this present age — not so much individuals but spirits, the cravings and fears which operate in the sphere of the false self which we have built between our true selves and God.

Ironically, Mark shows us Jesus identified as Messiah by the High Priest; proclaimed to the people by Pilate; saluted as King by the soldiers, and enthroned on a cross beneath a placard bearing his proper title, with two thieves occupying the seats of honour for which James and John had contended, one on his right hand and one on his left. The Powers proclaim Jesus even while destroying him and, as we shall see, their cynical frankness about Jesus hints at a mysterious pattern in the world where even evil is compelled to serve the Creator’s purposes.
Reading: Mark 15.16-37

Meditation: The Cross

JESUS Christ was not crucified between two candlesticks on an altar but tortured to death in the way that Romans reserved for rebels. Even the ancient world, which had a stronger stomach for public horrors than ours, regarded crucifixion as a peculiarly terrible punishment.

The sixth hour was, in Roman reckoning, noon. There was darkness at noon, just as when Jesus was born there was brightness at midnight. The sun, so often the symbol of imperial power, was eclipsed.

The condemned man was commonly beaten up and stripped. Notice how many clothings and unclothings there are in this story. It is a profound theme in scripture from the time when our first parents recognised that they were naked and were covered with shame. Victims of crucifixion were then nailed to a cross about seven feet tall so that wild animals could leap up to the body. It was also easy, as we can see from the narrative, for passers-by to mock the figure hanging on the cross only just above their heads. Death was often a long time in coming, and usually occurred by gradual asphyxiation.

He was mocked: “Thou that destroyest the temple and buildest it in three days, save thyself.” This echoes the charges made at his trial. The temple was the central symbol of the old order. It was not only a place of worship but the pinnacle of a system of social and economic organisation which benefited some but by no means all. Jesus had wryly observed this while sitting “over against the treasury”, when he noted that the widow had to contribute all her living.

The new community was not to be centred on this great institution constructed on its mountain but on the body of Jesus Christ.

There is no lack of realism in the teaching of Jesus about the difficulties to be overcome in building the new human community, the new Israel. Above all, he taught that the obstacle to entry into this new reality is attachment to the surface self — the clothed self — that we have manufactured as our way of negotiating with the world around us.

Modern people often call this surface self the ego. It is the self which is organised over against other selves, and regards and negotiates with the others as with objects to be managed. The manufacture of this self is part of the human condition, and every one of us has to do this work to survive and function; but spiritual growth, at a certain point in life, demands a reversal and a progressive diminution of the ego so that our true selves may be liberated and flourish.

The surface self, however necessary its construction, once achieved is a barrier between our deepest selves and God; a barrier which in the end prevents growth, and interrupts the healthful and energizing exchange of love which is intended to pass between the heart of our being and the heart of God.

Adam and Eve hid themselves from the Lord God in the Garden of Eden, clothing themselves to hide from God, but Jesus is transparent to his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane. William Blake, the great prophet of London, said “We are put upon this earth a little space to learn to bear the beams of love.” Alas, from our earliest years we are hard at work to build beam-proof shelters, and from this position no man hath quickened his own soul.

The soul is the full expression of our deepest self, which was created for communion with God and all other beings created by God. The soul thrives in connection and communion. The ego is oriented towards self-preservation by domination.

The ego regards the world around as composed of objects of its thought or desire. The deepest self — the spiritual heart — sees other subjects. That is why, in what he says and what he does, in how he lives and in how he dies, Our Lord teaches that “whosoever would save his life shall lose it and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s shall save it” (8.35).

If we dwell in our surface self, building our castle walls to defend ourself against the others and constructing a position from which we can control the surrounding landscape, then we are cut off from the freely given and received exchange of love and worth which is the source of the profoundest energy in life, and we shrink. In the end, our defence becomes our undoing.

We enter eternal life by coming to our senses; by staying here, today; by becoming aware — not least of death. So much about the way we live now — the hectic pace which seems to be based on the logic that the faster we live, the more we will get out of this short life — flows from a repressed fear of death which stalks this civilisation. The Cross stands for the truth that we can only enter life in all its fullness by embracing our own death. Christians through the ages have discovered that this is not a morbid path but the very opposite. To accept and be aware of our own death is a liberation which enables us to stand beside others in a deeper way.

The message is, of course, even deeper than that. We are summoned to enter into the great exchange of love which gives and receives in freedom, rather than buys or sells; which contemplates with joy, rather than consumes to the point of satiation.

Our contemplation includes the cost. In so many ways, we discover that real love lies in the letting go. This is an agonising experience for many parents, and indeed for anyone who has loved deeply. We also discover that, with non-possessive love, you make a gift of power to the other person which exposes you to deep injury and wounds. Jesus Christ teaches us this truth as he hangs silently on the Cross.

The gospel began with the voice of one crying in the wilderness — the prophet John the Baptist, whose end was to be killed by Herod. Now, at what seems to be the end, there is one last cry; a terrible cry, using words from the beginning of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Jesus feels the full weight of the God-forsakenness which there is in the world in thrall to the Powers.

Some among the bystanders, like people throughout the history of the Church, have not given up hope of a happy ending — the arrival of some celestial Fifth Cavalry — so that we might be shielded from the dreadful truth that the passage to new life lies through suffering and by accepting death.

“Some of them stood by and said, ‘Behold he calleth Elijah’.” But we know from Jesus himself that Elijah has already come in the person of John the Baptist, and has been spurned (9.13). “Once again Jesus uttered a loud voice and gave up the ghost.”

The way opened up by Our Lord discloses that, if you do set out to make your neighbour your work of art in the new human community which Jesus came to inaugurate, then you will be exposed to hurt and unimaginable pain. But, as you look deeply into the human face of God, he will awake and strengthen your deepest self, which was made in his image; he will quicken your soul. This is work we cannot do for ourselves; it is beyond our strength and imagining. Jesus Christ lifted up upon the Cross is the mirror in which we can glimpse our true, God-created selves. Jesus Christ is the true self of the human race.

But for the moment, that body hangs upon the Cross. It appears that the Powers have won, and that there will be no new spring for the world. “Let Christ the King of Israel now come down from the cross that we may see and believe. And they that were crucified with him, reproached him.”
Reading Mark 15.38-47

Meditation: Death and Beyond

IT appears that the Powers have had the last word. The body which was to have been the heart of the new community falls silent. But immediately (Mark’s favourite word) the veil before the Holy of Holies in the Temple — the great symbol of the old order — is split from top to bottom; torn like the wineskins when the new patch is applied, or like the garments of the High Priest when he was confronted by Jesus. The fury of the Powers has brought their world to the edge of destruction.

Jesus hangs on the Cross in silence and a great tempest of hate and violence rages around him. It is a revelation of the true nature of the Powers, and an explosion which brings them closer to exhaustion and bankruptcy. Jesus takes upon himself all this pain and anger without reinvigorating it by returning railing for railing and cursing for cursing. Instead, he takes it into himself although the cost is terrible – “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

For the moment, however, the Powers seem to remain in occupation of the field. The centurion which “stood by over against him”, named him: “Truly this man was the Son of God.” The Powers, operating through the demons, had always recognised Jesus for who he was, and pronouncing the true name of someone was believed to give you power over that person.

But there are those women — still there, unlike the men, because they had not only followed him but served him in Galilee. We wait and watch with them a little while, to contemplate the form taken by perfect love when it enters this world of ours.

Christ on the Cross reveals the face of perfect love in this world. If we are quiet enough — like those life-bearing women in the gospel story, waiting afar off — then Christ on the Cross will send shockwaves through the crust to stimulate our spiritual heart.

Sometimes he sends the gift of tears, so that the heart of stone can become once more the heart of flesh. Then we shall know the reality of the pictures given to us in Exodus: how the water gushes out of the heart of the flinty rock, and how the bush burns with fire but is not consumed.

You enter the realm of eternal life and you pass through to a new awareness by coming to your senses; by remaining under the Cross; by becoming aware, not least of death; by entering into the great exchange of love which gives and receives in freedom, rather than buys or sells; which contemplates with joy, rather than consumes to the point of satiation. As you look deeply into the human face of God, he will awaken and strengthen your deepest self, which was made in his image; he will quicken your soul. This is work we cannot do for ourselves; it is beyond our strength and our imagining.

All they that go down into the dust shall kneel before him; and no man hath quickened his own soul.
The heavens shall declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born, whom the Lord hath made. [Psalm 22]

Life-bearing women are signs of hope in the Passion according to St Mark, but their vigil does not last very long because Joseph of Arimathaea — a rich man, and a member of the Council which had condemned Jesus — came and begged his body from Pilate and hastily wound him in the linen cloth. This is the second use of this word — “sindon” — in the gospel. You will remember that the linen cloth was taken from the young man, the disciple, as he fled. Jesus was wrapped in the linen cloth without any of the usual rites, and laid in the tomb. Joseph of Arimathaea caused a stone to be rolled across the door.

Maybe Joseph was a secret disciple doing what little honour he could to the crucified Son of Man, but the effect of the scene is to despatch Jesus with as little ceremony as possible. In 5.29, John’s own disciples — not a hidden sympathizer — took up the Baptist’s body and laid it in a tomb.

The stone is rolled over the entry. The realm of the Powers is intact; the tragedy is ended. The story of Jesus and his New Israel is apparently finished.

Our presence this afternoon; each in our own individual home; is a sign that this is not true. Whether we read St Mark’s account of Jesus’ last hours as believers or as those who want to believe, we come in hope for some glimpse of a way through to life in all its fullness.

The women come back to perform the customary rites. They are a potent sign of the reversals involved in the new human community inaugurated by Jesus. In Jewish law, you needed two male witnesses to establish the truth of anything; but Jesus taught that women were to be full partners in the new community, and indeed it was the women who had kept him company during his final hours, albeit “afar off”.

They discover that stone rolled away and a young man sitting on the right side, arrayed in a white robe. This recalls the robe of dazzling light which Jesus himself wore at the Transfiguration. The young man sitting in the tomb is a potent symbol of fresh insight and energy. But the white clothes are those of a martyr. Here is the second appearance of the young man who fled when Jesus was arrested.

He says unto them, “Be not amazed, ye seek Jesus the Nazarene which hath been crucified; he is risen; he is not here; behold the place where they laid him. But go tell his disciples and Peter, he goeth before you into Galilee, there ye shall see him as he said unto you.”

Losing his life, the true self of the human race and the human face of God has passed through the false surface-self, the sphere of the Powers. He has been raised by God, and is able to recall others to their deepest selves, which they can see in him and regain by following his way. There is the young man, full of life and no longer naked but clothed like Jesus in a robe of white. But these are the robes, not of purity but of martyrdom; another pointer to the way of gaining life by surrendering life.

The women at this point (there are three, to match the three disciples who sleep in unawareness in the Garden of Gethsamene) are told to tell his disciples and then Peter — for the first shall be last — that he is risen, and that “he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him as he said unto you.”

The young man invites us to go back to the beginning of the story, and perhaps to understand it all for the first time. Galilee is where Jesus first called his disciples in the everyday life and work of their home country. This time, we have the clue and, having watched by the Cross, we shall know him for who he is.

The gospel is revealed, not so much to spectators and commentators but to followers, learners, disciples in the new community which Jesus the true self of the human race inaugurates. Mark’s good news has as its climax the command to go back to everyday reality and transform it by living out life as a follower of Jesus. We are to become the body of Jesus in the world – Jesus, who himself embodies the life for others which is the true vocation of human beings made in the image of God. Humanity had to be brought to life by the humanity of God . . .we had to be called back to him by his Son [St Gregory Nazianzen].

We contemplate the cross of Jesus Christ this afternoon in the light of the responsibility which the climax of the story, as St Mark presents it, places upon us. A splendid reversal of the victory claimed by the exhausted and discredited Powers would have been one thing, but this insistence that the person awakened by the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ can only begin again, wherever we are, to follow him as a servant, offering life so as to enter into life more profoundly — no wonder that these tidings profoundly disturbed the women. “They said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.”

That is where the ancient texts of St Mark’s gospel ended. Mark leaves us, as we contemplate this scene, with the question that reverberates through his gospel. It is for each one of us to answer this question in the silence of our own hearts. “Who do men say that I am?”

Praying at Home

Suggestions for Prayers at Home,                                                                                                    especially when we are unable to worship together in church.

 

 

Maundy Thursday

The Rt. Revd. Richard Chartres

Readings: Luke 22.7-23; 1 Corinthians 11:.23-26

WE are prevented by the lockdown from being in church this Maundy Thursday. We therefore cannot in person participate in communion, but we can nevertheless recall the Last Supper which Jesus shared with his friends before his betrayal and arrest. It is an opportunity to renew our sense of the Eucharistic life as we reflect on one of the very few commandments that Jesus gave us: “Do this in remembrance of me.”
The shadow of betrayal and imminent suffering hung heavily over that night. Yet, instead of looking back with regret and asking how all those early hopes had been disappointed, Jesus looks forward and confides his future in the world to his friends.
We, like the first disciples, are called to re-member him in a dynamic sense. We do not merely recall his teaching and his appearing, which is for us long ago and far away. We re-member him among us, amidst the dis-membering forces of our world. We become “very members” of the body of Christ, and members one of another. It would actually be more accurate to say that Christ “re-members” us, as a community in which all the distinctions which keep us apart are transcended by our new life in Christ.
Sometimes the word “eucharist” is used for our re-enactment of the Last Supper. It is simply the Greek word for “thanksgiving” –- the prayer at the heart of the communion service, as we rehearse what has been done for us.
Another word which is often used is “liturgy”. It is again a Greek word, meaning a “public work” — typically used of building a road or a temple by collective effort. In this case, the liturgy is the action of a community in building the Church.
The Eucharist does not merely illustrate but transforms. As Richard Hooker said, it “is performative”. The Holy Communion is not something the church “puts on” to cater for our “religious” needs and feelings. It is the way appointed by Christ in which the world itself is to be “re-membered” through the growth of his body.
Christians have in the past argued about precisely how this happens. In the 16th century, polemics centred on various attempts to explain how the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist was communicated.
When questioned about her beliefs on the Eucharist during the reign of her sister Mary, the Princess Elizabeth simply replied:
“Christ was the Word that spake it,
He took the bread and brake it:
And what his words did make it
That I believe and take it.”
A very Church of England affirmation.
Our liturgy is one which arises from the command of Jesus Christ, “Do this in remembrance of me” — not in order to build a temple made with hands, but to build his body which, the gospel-writers say, has taken the place of the physical temple in Jerusalem.
In our own day, as we wander in the flatland of what Bishop Hilary of Poitiers described as “gormandizing and killing time”, the Church is being called to re-imagine herself in the Spirit as the Eucharistic community — the transforming community of the future.
The church is not constituted simply by clinging to apostolic teaching translated into a set of abstract ideas. Eucharist is the work through which the Church becomes what she is called to be. St Irenaeus says that “our teaching is in harmony with the eucharist, and the eucharist confirms our teaching”. Eucharist is the journey of the Church into the dimension of the mystical life of the Kingdom in which the desire which wastes itself in impulses to “gormandize and kill time” is restored to its true end.

“Gormandizing”
The nineteenth-century atheist Ludwig Feuerbach attempted to relegate the concept of the “spiritual” to the dustbin of history with the simple assertion that “man is what he eats”. It sounds better in German, because there is a play on words — “Der Mensch ist was er isst”.
It is obviously true that human beings must take the world into themselves to transform it into flesh and blood, and Feuerbach’s criticism arises from a false dichotomy between sacred and secular.
The whole creation depends on food. As David Hockney has recently said, “the important things in life are food and love, in that order”. Human beings alone have been created — and called — to bless God for the food and life we receive. God blesses the world; fills it with love and goodness. Human beings bless God, and see the world as He does. The human being is the priest of Creation, receiving the world from God and unifying it in his act of blessing.
The world was created as matter; material for one all-embracing eucharist. Human beings are priests of the cosmic sacrament.
Ordinary bread and wine quickly go stale and sour. But, if we offer them up to God in our thanksgiving, we can see them in their true colours as gifts of the Divine Love. After the offertory is when we can receive back the gifts, charged with a new significance and potency.
In recent years, the church has been much pre-occupied with mission and evangelism. It is obviously right that we should be caught up in God’s overflowing love for the world, and not turned in upon our own churchy concerns. But to what exactly we are calling men and women today? It cannot be that we are trying to sell our contemporaries an ideological package of some theories about God and life, and inviting them to join our gang.
The historical reality of Christ is, of course, the undisputed ground of the Christian faith; yet we do not so much remember him as a teacher of long ago and far away with a timeless message as know that he is with us as the Word made flesh. In him is the end of “religion”, because he himself is the Answer to all religion, to all human hunger for God; in him, the life that was lost by man — and which could only be symbolized, signified, asked for, in religion -– was restored to us.
All too often, of course, the church simply reflects the same old world: no eucharist and no joy, because there has been no real repentance and conversion; no real leaving home to follow Abraham in leaving his household gods to set out on the journey to the Promised Land; no authentic ascension (despite the injunction to “Lift up your hearts”); and no real mission.
As the transforming community of the future — the temple of Christ’s presence – the Church should overflow with love, expectation, and joy. We are waiting for the bridegroom. That is why we wear our party clothes. We are to love the Kingdom, not just talk about it as if the Church were simply a federation of discussion groups.
A true eucharist should be characterized by action and movement, seriousness and joy. It is not an audio-visual aid or an instruction course in “correct” doctrine. We are to re-member Christ in our assembly, not dismember him, or merely recall him.
The transformation of the bread and the wine is effected by the prayer for the blessing of the Holy Spirit — which has been restored, in our new liturgies, alongside his words at the Last Supper, the words of institution, because the Spirit manifests and brings into being the life of the world to come. Eucharist is not so much other-worldly or this- worldly; it is more next-worldly.
There are many ways of apprehending the transforming character of the eucharistic liturgy. One way of appreciating the eucharistic transformation is particularly salient in our own time, as we begin to count the cost of the wreckage of our world when it is treated as mere matter, to be transformed by human willing into material for further gormandizing and killing time.
Just as in the story of the marriage feast at Cana, there is in the eucharist a dramatic reversal of roles. We may enter the liturgy believing ourselves to be masters of the feast (you will remember that the master of the feast did not know where the good wine had come from) but, as we “put on” — as St Paul says — the Lord Jesus, we discover that we are not after all “masters and possessors of the earth” (Descartes) but guests; participants in a wedding, not just ignorant quaffers.
The transformation, of course, is such a reversal of all worldly wisdom and calculation that the passage into God’s future in Christ is by way of the Cross — the way of stripping and loss. The setting out from home to join the eucharistic assembly is a symbol of the many small deaths we must die, and crosses we must bear, in order to break out of the confining matrix of a life turned in upon itself and enter into “the glorious liberty of the children of God”. But that is a story for Good Friday.