Sermon for Evensong (2nd Sunday after Epiphany)

Our two lessons this evening provide us with contrasting pictures of people in their relationship with God and each other, understood in sexual terms. Now it is an accusation often levelled at the Church that it is all we are concerned with, though that is in fact far from the case, and whereas the Victorians pretended that sex did not exist, modern humanity especially since the 1960s has acted as though nothing else does.
       In our first lesson the Prophet Isaiah is looking forward to a future when Israel, having returned to God and been purified, is understood as a land wedded to God. It looks forward to a Messianic future, one which we as Christians see as brought to fulfilment in Jesus Christ, who is the righteousness and the salvation of Israel, who gives himself for love of us, that we may be pure and holy and through Him. The image of married love and intimacy is profound: it speaks of mutual love and generosity, it is what God wills for our human flourishing, it is the place for children to be born and brought up, in love.
       Whereas the Church in Corinth is in a really bad way: as well as taking each other to court, Christians would appear to be behaving in a way which falls short of Christian morality. They appear to have understood freedom from the law as though it were freedom from any law: extreme antinomianism – that anything goes; that they can just do as they please. This is, however, not the case. How we live our lives, and what we do with our bodies matters. For those of us who have been washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit, we are called to be in Christ, clothed with him, and living a new life, conformed to him and not to the ways of the world.
       There are some in the Church in Corinth who have been arguing that all things are lawful, to which Paul has to counter that while something may be lawful, it may not be advantageous, as Christians like others in the ancient world would generally subscribe to an idea of virtue ethics, put simply ‘you are what you do’ or in greater depth, our actions help form our moral character – we become what we do habitually, and thus the more we do the right thing, the more we are disposed to do such things, and thus to progress in virtue.
       While they claim the freedom from being made subject to anyone, they would appear to be subject to base appetites, to lust and gluttony, neither of which help in our relationship with Jesus Christ. Thus the proper place for sexual activity remains holy matrimony, where a man and woman are joined; they become one flesh, in a life-long exclusive union where children may be born.
       Christians are to love their bodies, as ours is not a spiritual religion, which despises the flesh, but which rather wishes to see it used for the glory of God and for our mutual flourishing. We receive the Holy Spirit and the grace of God, and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity in our baptism, where we are regenerate, born anew in Christ, we are not our own in that we now live for God, and we glorify him in our bodies by how we live our lives.

       The messianic hope expressed in this evening’s first lesson finds its fulfilment in Christ and in the Church which is his body, we were bought at a price, not thirty pieces of silver, but life of God’s only-begotten Son, who suffered and died for us, for you and for me, and for the sins of the whole world, past, present, and future. How else can we begin to try and repay such love and such generosity than by living the life that God wills for our human flourishing – gentle, generous, and exhibiting the same costly love which Christ showed to us.  This glorifies God and shows due respect to the wonders of creation and salvation, it helps to form our moral character and to live out true faith and charity in our lives, supporting one another, praying for each other, forgiving one another when we fail, and being built up in love, as living stones, a temple to God’s glory. And by living out our faith in our lives we will proclaim the truth and the freedom of the Gospel – others will come and see and enter into the joy of the Lord and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

Epiphany II: John 1:43-51

In John’s Gospel we have seen Jesus baptised by John the Baptist, we have heard John declare ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world’, we have seen Jesus call Andrew and Simon Peter, disciples of John, to follow him. Now Jesus decides to go from Bethany to Galilee, to go back home. He begins by saying to Philip ‘Follow me’ a simple invitation, which he accepts. Coming from Bethsaida, the same city as Andrew and Peter it is certain that Philip knows them, and is well-disposed to join in with them, and to answer Jesus’ invitation. He then finds Nathanael and testifies that Jesus is he who is spoken of in the Law of Moses and the prophets, the Messiah, the saviour of Israel. Nathanael’s reply, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ looks like a proverbial saying – it reminds us of Jesus’ ordinary earthly existence, growing up in a backwater town. Nathanael’s initial scorn will be transformed; such is the power of God. Philip counters by saying ‘Come and see’, Jesus’ answer to John’s disciples who want to know where he is staying. This invitation to come and see for oneself lies at the heart of the proclamation of the Good News, it remains as key now as it did nearly two thousand years ago.
       Jesus sees Nathanael coming towards him and says ‘Here is an Israelite in whom there is no guile’ he’s plain-speaking, honest, there’s no flannel here. Nathanael is amazed before long has acclaimed Jesus as a teacher, the Son of God and King of Israel. Clearly something good can come out of Nazareth, good enough to save the world. For the kingdom to grow we cannot simply expect to open our doors and see people flood in, we have to invite people in, to say to them ‘Come and see’ and make sure that they see Jesus in Word, Sacrament, and in the lives of those around them. Having been called, they can respond to that call. This is what the church is for – to call people to be in a relationship with Jesus, to be nourished by him. We need to continue to repeat the simple invitation of Jesus ‘Come and see’, to come and see the one who is shown in the Law and the Prophets as the Messiah, the Anointed Saviour, so that people can become close to Him.
       This openness, this willingness to be changed by an encounter with Christ, encourages us to look outwards and share our faith with others – to live lives of joy, in the knowledge that God loves us and saves us. Our faith as Christians is not something which we keep to ourselves, but rather something which we share, and which affects all of who and what we are, and think, and say, and do. Ours is a radical faith which has at its aim to change the world. It may sound strange or overambitious, but if we acknowledge Jesus Christ as the King of Heaven and Earth, who came to save humanity, we have to call the world to follow him. Our faith then is not a private matter, or something which we just do on a Sunday morning for an hour or so, but rather something which changes our lives, and affects every part of who we are and what we do. What we see starting in this morning’s Gospel is something which we can bear fruit in our lives, if we accept the invitation to ‘Come and see’ and encourage others so to do.

       The Gospel is the Good News of Jesus Christ, good news that God loves humanity, that He saves us, that He gives Himself to save us from our sins, and nourishes us with His Word and His Sacraments, so that we can have life in Him, and life in all its fullness. What starts with the Incarnation is still bearing fruit here and now, still encouraging people to come and see, to meet Jesus, to be nourished and changed by Him, let us accept His invitation, and offer it to others that they too may enter into the joy of the Lord and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

A Thought for the Day from S. Anthony the Great

The brethren came to the Abba Anthony and said to him, ‘Speak a word; how are we to be saved?’ The old man said to them, ‘You have heard the Scriptures. That should teach you how.’ But they said, ‘We want to hear it from you too, Father.’ Then the old man said to them, ‘The Gospel says,”if anyone strikes you on the one cheek, turn to him the other also.”‘ (Mt 5:39) They said, ‘We cannot do that.’ The old man said, ‘If you cannot offer the other cheek, at least allow one cheek to be struck.’ ‘We cannot do that either,’ they said. So he said, ‘If you are not able to do that, do not return evil for evil,’ and they said, ‘We cannot do that either.’ Then the old man said to his disciple, ‘Prepare a little brew of corn for these invalids. If you cannot do this, or that, what can I do for you? What you need is prayers.’

It was revealed to Abba Anthony in his desert that there was one who was his equal in the city. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Sanctus with the angels.

He also said, ‘Our life and our death is with our neighbour. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalise our brother, we have sinned against Christ.’

A thought for the day from St Athanasius

Like many people I have found the images in CharlieHebdo which mock religion, and in particular Christianity, somewhat difficult and troubling. The following words of St Athanasius are, however, both a help and a comfort:

Come now, blessed one and true lover of Christ, let us, with the faith of our religion relate things concerning the Incarnation of the Word and expound his divine manifestation to us which the Jews slander and the Greeks mock, but which we ourselves venerate, so that all the more from his apparent degradation, you may have even greater and fuller piety towards him, for the more he is mocked by unbelievers by so much he provides a greater witness of his divinity, because what human beings cannot understand as impossible, these he shows to be possible (cf. Mt 19:26), and what human beings mock as unseemly, these he renders fitting by his own goodnessand what human beings through sophistry laugh at as merely humanthese by his power he shows to be divine, overturning the illusion of idols by his own apparent degradation through the crossinvisibly persuading those who mock and disbelieve to recognise his divinity and his power.

Athanasius de Incarnatione Dei Verbi 1
tr. J. Behr (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press : 2011)

Christmas II

We live in a world which is obsessed by time. The pace of modern life is quite different to that of a generation or two ago. Despite the advent of labour-saving devices and technology we seem if anything busier than ever as other things come along to fill our time – we can feel pressured, worried, and anxious. This isn’t good; we can’t help feeling that this isn’t how it is supposed to be. Thankfully God doesn’t work like this. The people of Israel have been waiting for a Messiah, for a Saviour to be born, who will save Israel from their sins, but it isn’t a case of birth on demand. As St Paul writes to the church in Galatia (Gal 4:4-5) ‘But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.’ God’s time is not our time, and the Incarnation happens not at a convenient time, but in the fullness of time – after the message has been proclaimed by the prophets, who prepare the way for the Saviour; after Mary has said ‘yes’ to God, a ‘yes’ which can undo the ‘no’ of Adam and Eve.
            This is why, at the start of his Gospel, St John, the beloved disciple, can begin right at the start of salvation history, indeed with Creation itself: his opening words ‘In the beginning’ point us straight back to the opening words of Genesis, in Hebrew BeresithIn the beginning’. This is where it all starts, where everything that is starts,  and the Word through which God speaks creation into existence, this creative power of God is what will take human flesh and be born of the Virgin Mary. The enormity of this situation should not be lost on us, we cannot think about it too much, the helpless infant born in a stable is God, who created all that is, or has been, or will be, and who comes among us weak, helpless and vulnerable, dependent upon the love and support of father and mother for everything. Christ shares our human existence from birth to death, so that we may know that ours is a God who comes among us, who comes alongside us, who is not remote, but involved, a God of love.
            St John take us back to the beginning so that we can see what we are dealing with, and how it fits into the bigger picture. What we are celebrating at Christmas is something which extends through time, both in its nature and its effects. It is why we as Christians make such a big deal of Christmas – it isn’t just something to do in the middle of winter, but along with Our Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection , the most wonderful and important moment of history, which affects us here and now. What was made known to the shepherds we now proclaim to the world, what symbolically is shown in the Solemn Feast of the Epiphany, which we prepare to celebrate, where the Wise Men point to the manifestation of Christ’s Divinity to the whole world.
            ‘And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.’ The reality of the Incarnation, of God with us, Emmanuel, that God lives with us, sharing our human life, shows us the glory of God, that from which Moses hid his face in the Exodus is now made plain, and displayed for all to see, a proclamation of the glory, the love, and the goodness of God, shown in our adoption as children of God, given an inheritance – eternal life and a relationship with God – a humanity restored and healed. This is the light which shines in the darkness of our world, which it cannot overcome. John the Baptist testifies to this, the Wise Men kneel in adoration before Him, bringing gold for a King, Incense for the worship of God, and myrrh which points to His Death on the Cross for our salvation. Their gifts show that they understand and value who and what Christ is, and what He does.
            Are we to be like the world, which though it was created through Him does not know him? Or like his own people, who did not accept Him? Or do we receive Him, and believe in His Name, which is above every name? Do we accept the invitation to become children of God, and do we respond to it? Do we accept the challenge to live as the family of God, loving and forgiving, as those who are loved and forgiven by God, so that our lives, yours and mine, proclaim the glory and truth of God, and the message of salvation for all the world to hear? If we accept our inheritance, the fact that there is now a familial relationship between us and God, we need to understand that with that relationship comes duty and responsibility.

            And yet we do not see this as something imposed upon us, but rather as the truth which sets us free: a relationship with a God whose service is perfect freedom. So let us walk in His light, dwell in His love, and know the fullness of His joy, let us be glad that as a pledge of His love He gives Himself, under the outward forms of bread and wine, to feed us with His Body and His Blood, a sign that His promise is true, that we can have a foretaste of Heaven, food for our journey of faith here on earth, so that we may know his love, and touch it and taste it, so that we can be strengthen to live that faith and to proclaim it by word and deed, so that all the world may enter into His joy, and live His life.