Sunday, 5 March 2017

Three questions for Lent

Only a few weeks ago, I witnessed first-hand something of the power of repentance.
There was a young man who could not handle the responsibility of bringing up the son he had unintentionally sired. So set was he on living a carefree life of drink, drugs and parties that he cut himself off from the mother and denied outright that the baby was his, despite the obvious resemblance - for fifteen years. That fifteenth year was the year his son died. He was stabbed to death, in some connection with gang crime. That was what it took for the man to realise what it means to be a father. Hew knew for the first time, in what he saw as the fatal consequence of his irresponsibility, the full weight of his sin. It pushed him to the verge of madness, and in his grief he prayed to God for forgiveness. “Repentance” in the Bible means a change of heart, and that is what happened to this man. He turned from his dissolute lifestyle to Christ, and now spends his life visiting gaols, borstals, schools and youth clubs trying to alert young men to the consequences of involvement in gangs.
This young man was just one of the speakers at a service for families affected by gang and knife crime held here last month.
It’s easy to write testimony like this off when you’re thinking about it from a distance, sitting behind a computer screen, say. The online sceptic might say that it’s all rather convenient for people who have seriously let other people down to turn and “be saved.” But you would have needed a heart of stone not to be moved that night, when that man spoke in person. The atheist Twitterati say we need to throw away the faith and lead lives based purely on science and analytical philosophy, but I have yet to see someone’s entire life turn around because they read a bit of Locke or Hume. The evidence for people’s lives changed by grace through turning in repentance to Christ, on the other hand, is all around us.
Repentance is for sinners, and the greater the sin, the more powerful the repentance. Our Lord said that he came not for the well, but for the sick. It is not just Christians who know this basic truth, either. The Buddhist monk Shinran wrote that if the good man should be saved, how much more the evil man.
Where we tend to fall short in the modern world, though, is that we are far readier to see other people’s sins than our own. The example I have given of the young man who abandoned his family is obvious. But Lent is not about other people’s sins. As Jesus said, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Let me be blunt: if you believe, as most of the world seems to, that nothing at all is your fault, that you have no sin in you, then you are living a lie, will never know the joy of repentance and cannot even start on the spiritual journey of a renewed heart in Christ. So Lent is the time when Christians go completely against the self-congratulating and self-justifying orthodoxy of the modern age and look honestly in the mirror.
To this end, we might this Lent ask ourselves the three questions which the Devil puts to Jesus in the wilderness.
First, the stones and the bread. What is our bread? What keeps us going? If the only thing that gets us up in the morning is, say, seeking entertainment, the next fix, the next tidbit of gossip, picking and choosing clothes or food, shopping, or even work - if those are the priority in our life - then we are chewing on worthless stones in the vain hope that God will turn them to bread. He will not. He has given us the Living Bread of his Word, the Word he made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ and gives us afresh in the words of Scripture and in the the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. So first, repent by making the true bread your priority.
Second, the Devil takes Jesus to the roof of the temple. what do we trust? What do we think is going to catch us if we fall? Perhaps we think we can make our own security out of sheer will or hard work, so that we do not need God. Or even if we do believe in God, there is a temptation to believe in him only when things are going well. To say, “I believe in God only as long as X, or Y, or Z does not happen to me” is to put God to the test. It is putting conditions on our belief when he offers us unconditional love. If ever you suffer this affliction (as many of us do sometimes), take up your Bible and read the Book of Job. If we believe in a God who is nailed to a Cross, we are foolish to expect a life of easy reward and no suffering. That mindset has to be changed if we want to know the truth of God, rather than setting him up as a daddy in the sky who gives us treats for being good. Again, repentance, changing of the heart and mind - this time to trust in God.
Third, the Devil tempts Jesus to worship him. To what do we really bend the knee? Most of us have idols that we set up from time to time where God really belongs. It may take exploration and a great deal of honesty to own up to ourselves about what really matters most in our lives. If it is not God, then there is more repentance do be done. And what is more, Jesus says that we are not only to worship God alone but to serve God alone. If we are serving to get our names on the rota or the board and look important, but don’t turn up on time (or at all) and so pile up more work on our Christian brothers and sisters, we are not serving God. We are serving ourselves, at best giving God a nice “tip” so generously offered from our precious time. All that we have and all that we are belong to him, and repentance helps us to see that truth.

So pray for the grace to know yourself more clearly, to see yourself more honestly. Repentance is the very first step on the road to knowing God truly, in all his unconditional forgiveness and love - and it will change your life.  

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Ash Wednesday

Give, pray, and fast are Our Lord’s clear instructions in the Gospel for Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:1-6 & 16-18) - but with an important caveat. Give, pray, and fast, but not to draw attention to yourself, not because you want a reward.
There are plenty of people in our church who give very generously, some of money, some of time, some of both. It’s worth remembering at this point that you may not know who they are, so if you are occasionally quick to criticise people who work behind the scenes, perhaps you might pause for thought. We all give something, and the onus on us in Lent is not to ask what other people are giving, but what more we can give ourselves. 
Prayer does not need to be done with great exuberance, arm-waving and rolling round in the aisles to prove to everyone how holy you are, but it does need to be done. And so Lent is not the only time we focus on prayer, but a reminder to put our entire prayer life back into order for the longer term. I have spoken before about the Anglican pattern of regular Mass, the Office of daily morning and evening prayer, and private prayer (“MOP” for short). The first, you can do here; there are resources for the second online; and the third, we can think more deeply about in Lent. As a start, I would strongly suggest keeping some sort of prayer diary with the names of people or organisations or causes you want to pray for (1) every day, (2) weekly and (3) monthly - then spend a few minutes each day on your knees praying for them.
Of the three, fasting is probably the most forgotten these days. Let’s be clear from the start that this is not just a “Roman Catholic thing.” Our own Book of Common Prayer very clearly marks days of abstinence, and Archbishop Cranmer was keen to encourage them. For those who are physically fit enough to do so, certainly Ash Wednesday and Good Friday should be kept as fasts, focussing your mind on Christ’s sacrifice by eating only one full meal in the day, and having one or two very light meals to keep you going if you must. You might also consider giving up something, such as meat, on Fridays throughout Lent, and further on in the year - the Ash is not just for Wednesday. 

None of this - giving, praying or fasting - is going to earn you a place in heaven. Our Lord has already done that for us on the Cross. What it is, however, is an expression of our gratitude to Him for His Sacrifice, and a way of staying ever mindful of it so that we can respond to his love and change our lives for the better: for God hates nothing that he has made and gives perfect remission and forgiveness to who are truly penitent of their sins. 

Thursday, 9 February 2017

The Wall

I have held off from preaching or writing about Mr Trump, partly because I am naturally cautious when it comes to witch-hunts. It sadly does not surprise me that exactly the people who object to his famous Hadrian fantasy now want to block him from entering our country, despite having made no objections against various visiting despots from the Middle East, Indonesia and China. 

Even so, objections to Trump's wall stand firmer than it does itself, especially when it is propped up by cherry-picked biblical witness. It surely did no credit to Christianity when Trump's reverend stooge cited sacred scripture at his inaugural speech to prove that God is "not against" building walls. 

Now this may well be true when one is defending one's people from marauding tribes, as in the Old Testament story cited: and I suspect that very few of the people who hold up placards calling for "no borders" leave their front doors and windows open to all comers at all hours. But the Bible is not given to Christians as an anthology of proof texts. We are meant to read it through the lens of Christ. So doing, we see an overarching narrative of a God who breaks boundaries, even the boundary between himself and his creation, in the person of Jesus Christ; who breaks the barriers that separate Jew and Gentile, slave and free, the taboos which cordon off the leper, the prostitute, the tax-collector; who even tears the veil between earth and heaven in his glorious Resurrection. National boundaries and nation states have their purpose, but Christians must always see them as only temporary measures, in this critical light. There is nothing temporary about a wall. 

All this is a caution against a pick'n'mix approach to the Bible, and also to a pick'n'mix approach to clergy: U.S. Presidents choose their own preachers. The benefit of an Established Church like ours is that, counterintuitively, its leaders are not chosen by our political masters. This does leave us with a grave responsibility to act as critical friends to the Government rather than as lickspittles, but the American contrast shows that this is no bad thing. 

This aside, it is worth bearing in mind in the furore that the proposed presidential visit is not a matter of Mrs May inviting Mr Trump. Rather, the Prime Minister of Great Britain is inviting the President of the United States. He is here for his role, not his person, and to refuse to work with him would be a neglect of the Government's duty, foolish and even childish: grown-ups have to work with people they do not like. There is something of the Gospel in that sentiment, too. 

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Salt and oil: 4 before Lent

Salt used properly and in moderation does not replace the taste of the food it seasons, but amplifies the flavour already there. Light does not create things out of the darkness, but picks out objects which already exist. Our Lord came not to destroy the natural order of creation, but to bring out the hidden sanctity of that which was, after all, created and called good by God. And so the we, the Church, are called not to overthrow the natural order, to refuse or resist it, but to find the secret savours and hidden shapes of goodness which God implanted in the world and to throw them into relief, reveal them.

The Reformers got into a terrible pickle over this, and some of their successors carry on the trend. It started with the notion that since only God is good, and only the sacrifice of Christ has the power to save, our own actions or ‘works’ make absolutely no difference whatsoever to our salvation. Faith alone matters; works, however good they might seem, are redundant. Some more extreme Protestant scholars took this as far as to say that the universe which God created has been utterly broken by the fall of Adam, and no good at all remains in it: the world and its creatures are utterly reprobate with no inherently redeeming features. Redemption is from Christ alone, by his grace.

The great strength of this view, which derived after all from St Paul and the great African bishop St Augustine, is that it emphasises the truth of our complete and utter need to rely on God. By ourselves, our own will, we can do nothing of any good. It does however cause a number of other problems. For a start, it means dismissing or at best relativising large chunks of the Old Testament, such as that in today’s first reading: the many texts which exhort us to care for the poor and needy and insist that God will judge us for our own actions. It also seems to contradict the New Testament letter of St James, who tells us that faith without works is dead faith, and this explains why both Calvin and Luther wanted that book expunged from the Bible.

But more fundamentally than that, it means a denial of the goodness of God’s creative power. It even risks making evil part of God’s intentions, which comes close to suggesting that God is not entirely good, obviously a problematic position. It seems clear to me that while there were movements in the early Church which wanted to demonise created matter and elevate the spiritual realm, these were fairly quickly rejected as heresy by the majority of thinkers - and the main reason for this is that the Early Church did its theology through reflection not just on the texts of the Bible, but of the Eucharist which was at the centre of the Church’s worshipping life. By the time of the Reformation, it is worth bearing in mind that while the Eucharist was still at the centre of the worship of the Catholic Church in the sense that the priests offered the sacrifice every Sunday, most laypeople received only two or three times each year. The life of the mediaeval Church was therefore somewhat adrift from the Eucharistic origins of the Early Church: so much so, in fact, that our own Reforming Archbishop Cranmer tried in his Book of Common Prayer to encourage much more frequent reception of Communion than was the norm in the Roman Catholic Church of those days (the move towards laypeople receiving daily is quite modern). But if we return to the first five centuries of Christian thought, we find it firmly grounded in the assumption that the weekly reception of the Eucharist is at the centre of every Christian’s life.

To understand Christian theology properly, I think we need to get back into the mindset of those early Christians and their relationship with the very created matter of the Eucharist. We need to remember that the Gospels were written for existing Christian communities which were already celebrating the Eucharist together: the Mass predates the New Testament. If we can bear that in mind, thinking of the context of the Eucharistic meal as the background in which the Gospels were designed to be read, then Jesus’ words will make clearer sense to us.

Let’s think first about what had to happen in every Christian church before the Eucharist could be celebrated. Nowadays, the priest puts in an order form to a church supplier, who then posts us a few hundred imperishable disks of dried and preserved bread disks which we can get out of the sacristy when we need them. You, the laity, pay for them through the collection, but that’s as close as you get until you receive the Blessed Sacrament after the Eucharistic Prayer.

For the early Christians, it was very different. Laypeople would have baked the bread for the service themselves. There were special prayers and blessings which went with every ingredient that they could say, and they mixed it up with their own hands. They would even have threshed the grain themselves beforehand, and to get the grain, relied on the divine providence of good rain and sun for the harvest. They were connected to the material of the bread so that you might say, the Eucharist began long before anyone even set foot in church. It was connected in the minds of the laity right back to God’s ongoing creation, preservation and nourishment of life, and their work was part of that divine work of creation. To divide God off from the world, and say that the world which brings forth grain and grape is in someway deficient of God’s goodness, and then to say that their work had nothing to do with God, would have seemed at the very least somewhat ungrateful.

What is more, having made the bread themselves, they knew what went into it, and Jesus’ comments made sense in a particular, Eucharistic way. They were the ones who had added salt to the bread, to give flavour to the dough, and also to preserve it - as they used salt to preserve meat and fish. So for them, it was obvious that when Jesus said, ‘you are the salt of the earth,’ he meant that they were bringing out the flavours of something already good in itself, and moreover, were being left by him to keep doing that for eternity, the preserving work of grace continuing through the Church after Christ had left this world.

They also knew that lamplight came from olive oil, that vital ancient produce, and this reminded them of all the other uses of such oil in both the secular and sacred realms. Ephrem the Syrian even went as far as to call Christ “the olive,” for olives have to be crushed and pressed to release their goodness, like Christ on the Cross. The oil would be used not just for heat and light, figures for the Holy Spirit, but also for binding the grain of bread as the Holy Spirit binds us together in the Church. It was of course also used for the anointing or ‘chrism’ from which Our Lord takes his title of “Christ,” the Anointed One or Messiah - the very Christ who went to his pressing from the Mount of Olives.

So while it may be right to say that our own works in their own right are of no bearing on salvation, we must be wary of drawing too firm a line between God’s works and our own. We are a part of his creation, and Our Lord imbued us with the Holy Spirit to be his hands and feet, not so that we can replace creation or dazzle those in darkness with our brilliant rays, but to continue his divine work of bringing to perfection the creation which is fundamentally, at its core, made in the goodness of God’s own image. The Eucharist is the means he has given us to participate in his saving work, so that the liturgy - the work of the people - is in hidden reality theurgy - the work of God.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Mary, Mother of God

Our nativity set at the west end of the church does, I admit, present a rather sanitised picture of the birth of Our Lord. To get the statues out, I had to excavate a pile of old sacking and hay underneath the Lady Chapel altar, and I’m afraid we needed the rubber gloves on, because it quickly became clear that the resident rodent population had taken occupancy therein, and whatever the rats had been eating for dinner was now covering the tarpaulins in both solid and liquid states. So Jane got the big wheely bin in and we held our breath and chucked the lot of it, while Helena got behind the altar with the Henry hoover. Some gold and red cloth from the art shop round the corner replaced what we had threw away, making what I hope you agree is quite a beautiful little scene - but nobody can deny that the rat-infested rags and hay would have been more true to life.

There is a danger that we are so familiar with St Luke’s beautifully crafted account in the Bible that it can seem rather too clean and cosy, too. The Evangelist wants to draw our attention to God’s glory, replete with angelic visitations and miracles, and rightly so, for the story of Jesus’ birth is the story of God coming to dwell among us in glory, but - we need to remember the circumstances of where that glory was revealed.

I am somewhat unusual among priests in this part of London in that I have actually been present at a birth: that of my own daughter. My wife might not thank me for saying this, and she certainly had the harder end of the bargain, but I can say with certainty that giving birth was not quite as clean and pretty as the biblical account and the charming Nativity scene might suggest - and that’s in a modern hospital with a team of midwives, doctors and nurses, let alone in a grotty animal pen in a cave behind some hovel of an inn in ancient Palestine. It doesn’t take much imagination, and I am not going to paint the picture any more clearly, to realise the sort of scene that the shepherds found when they arrived. And yet it was there they found the glory of God.

St Luke leaves out what Mary made of all this, which is a shame, since his work must be based on her own account: Joseph was most likely dead by the time Luke wrote his Gospel, and I don’t suppose the shepherds or Magi were around to ask questions. Given how my wife felt about receiving visitors even after anaesthetic and all the “mod cons,” I wonder how welcome were those sweaty, hairy guests. And yet, we hear, she treasured what they had to say. She found something of the glory of God there, too.

Mary, Joseph and the shepherds had something in common: they had all seen angels. In each case, they were terrified at these awesome, dreadful visions of God’s glory, almost unbearable to the human mind and eye. And yet, after that blinding glory had passed, they found in in the muck and squalor of a stable: not in the power of the heavenly hosts, but in the weakness of a heaven-sent baby, himself a greater miracle than any of the glorious events which came before.

After the glamour of Christmas has passed, and the tinsel, trees and lights have come down, after the excitement and mystery of our celebrations in church have given way to ordinary time again, we will have to be like Mary, and seek the glory of God in ordinary things: in the legal drop-in, the homeless advice service, the mundane, everyday volunteering in the church; in one another and in service of our neighbours, but especially of the poor. So, enjoy the continuing celebrations of Christmas and the glitz and sparkle of the New Year, but remember where God’s glory really lies.