Sunday, 12 April 2015

Thomas our Twin

Thomas – not Becket but Doubting, you understand. Only St. John has much to say about Thomas.  The first time he’s mentioned, it’s when Jesus tells the disciples he is going to Judaea.  They don’t believe him: after all, isn’t it in Judaea that they want to stone him to death?  Thomas speaks for them all when he says: ‘let us also go, that we may die with him’.  You can hear the resignation in his voice, the philosophical acceptance that what must be must be.  But you can also hear his bravery, his dogged loyalty that says, as Ruth said to Naomi, ‘Where you go I will go, where you die I will die.  May the Lord do thus and so to me if even death parts me from you!’  That fits with the next episode, where Jesus is in the upper room telling the disciples he must go away.  It’s Thomas who asks candidly, if in a somewhat panicky way, what the others are too afraid to utter: ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?’ 

The last occasion and the best known is the story we heard this morning.  Thomas wasn’t present when Jesus appeared to the eleven on the first Easter Day.  Stubbornly, for it is his way, he insists on the evidence of his senses before he will believe in the resurrection.  When Jesus shows him his hands and side, Thomas rises to the occasion magnificently. It’s the supreme confession of faith in the entire gospel. ‘My Lord and my God!’ Only Mary Magdalen embraces Jesus as ardently when she clings on to him in the garden and he calls her by her name.  For St John, Thomas is so significant because it’s this doubter who is the first to recognise explicitly what John has been telling us since the very first words of the gospel: that in Jesus, the Word of the Father himself has come down to us and we have seen his glory, ‘full of grace and truth’. St John puts it this way in his tender letter that we also heard today: ‘what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have touched with our hands concerning the word of life – we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us.’ This is Thomas’s Easter.

There is, however, one question left open by the gospels.  ‘Thomas’ or Didymus means ‘the twin’.  But whose twin is he?  Who is the other brother or sister?  In some versions of the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, it’s startling to find him as the twin brother of Jesus himself, though most of them call him one of Jesus’s slaves.  But if we discount that, it’s a tantalising question without an answer. We’d love to know, but no-one does.  It’s no use speculating.

So why ask then?  Maybe there’s a different kind of answer we can give.  If Thomas is nobody’s twin, perhaps Thomas is everyone’s twin.  I mean that there is in him something we all have in common as Christians, something in the bloodstream, so to speak, of all of us who follow Jesus.  His weaknesses are familiar to us, for they are ours too: the tired sigh that says ‘so what - who cares?’, the stubbornness that ignores danger, the lack of insight that can’t see what stares us in the eyes.  We know all too well the worries and anxieties that haunt our path: ‘fightings without and fears within’.  They may not be likeable qualities, but they are human ones.  In that respect, Thomas is our twin, our flesh and blood. We recognise him only too well: no use pretending otherwise. Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère! says Voltaire, taunting his readers to be honest about themselves.

But recognise Thomas’s strengths too.  Strength and weakness belong together: our weaknesses are usually the shadow side of our strengths.  What are his strengths?  His courage, his loyalty, his reliability, his persistence, his willingness to go anywhere with Jesus; above all, his ability to summon up faith out of despair.  Against all the odds of temperament and history and circumstance, he of all the disciples makes that great confession of faith when he realises that the person in front of him is none other than the risen Lord, his Lord. Not Peter who went inside the tomb first, not John who saw and believed, but the careful, cautious, evidence-led, risk-averse Thomas. 

What I see in Thomas is a man much more like me than either the heroic Peter, the devoted John or the passionate Mary.  I wish I were a Peter, a John or a Mary, but I am really a Thomas: preferring to live in Lent rather than Easter, more at home with the cross than the resurrection.  And yet in Thomas, the transformation of reluctant foot-dragging obedience into radiant joy is complete.  So if it can happen to him, it can happen to me, to you, to any of us – can’t it? Shouldn’t it?  I hope we can see the signs of that transformation in us, in one another, and give thanks for the work of God within us.  I hope we’re finding our faith taking wings this Easter.  I hope there’s not just duty in our worshipping God and following Jesus, but much joy. I hope we are open in new ways to God’s capacity to surprise us. Whenever encounters light up our lives on our Easter journey, in whatever ways we see Jesus ‘Eastering’ in our own experience, wherever we ‘greet him the days we meet him and bless when we understand’, it makes us his twin.  We should be thankful.

Perhaps with St John, we are meant to read back from that Easter confession of faith new layers of meaning in those earlier utterances of his.  Take away the world-weariness and they are filled with hope and trust.  ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him’ – Yes, dust we are and to dust we shall return; nevertheless let us turn away from sin and follow Christ, we who bear the name of Christian, faithful unto death, so that we may be raised with him and receive the crown of life.  And to imagine Thomas with the disciples in the upper room, this time after the resurrection, asking the question of the upper room, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?’  Isn’t this to hope against hope that the risen Jesus will reveal himself as the true and living way?  Isn’t it to look for him to go before us as God went before Abraham who did not know where he was being led on the long, risky journey of faith, trusting only that if he followed loyally, the path would rise upwards and lead to the fulfilment of long-promised blessing? 

It all looks different from across the chasm of death and burial.  It becomes possible to begin to live out of faith rather than fear, trust rather than despair, freedom rather than enslavement.  Doubt and faith will always walk hand in hand this side of the grave.  But at the portal of the empty tomb stands the Architect of the new heaven and the new earth, the Man whom another woman of faith in John’s Gospel called the Resurrection and the Life.  He invites us this Easter time not to be afraid but to have courage, place our hands in his side, and let him be the wounded healer that touches our brokenness and pain and makes us whole again. 

So my wish and my prayer for us all on this first day of the week, this reprise of Easter Day, is simply that we should be risen with him, and he in us; that the day may break upon us and the shadows flee away; that the bud of resurrection may unfold and flower within us; that the light and truth of God may be poured out upon us, and upon our world and all its injustices and pain; that so many who are without freedom or hope may live again. I long for our joy in the risen Lord to last for ever; and that we should walk together in hope until it is time to rest, and travelling days are done.

Durham Cathedral, 12 April 2015, Easter 2.
1 John 1.1-2.2; John 20: 19-end


Sunday, 5 April 2015

Life Can Begin Again: a sermon on Easter Day

On Easter Monday 1917, in northern France, the British and Commonwealth forces launched the Easter Offensive against the German line. The Battle of Arras cost over 160,000 British. One of them was a soldier who was serving in the Artists’ Rifles. He was one of the great poets of his generation. Among his closest friends was Eleanor Farjeon who wrote the song ‘Morning has Broken’, a woman who was more than a little in love with him. As Holy Week began Edward, holed up in his trench, received an Easter gift. Eleanor’s poem tells the story. 

In the last letter that I had from France
You thanked me for the silver Easter egg
Which I had hidden in the box of apples
You like to munch beyond all other fruit.
You found the egg the Monday before Easter,
And said. 'I will praise Easter Monday now -
It was such a lovely morning'. Then you spoke
Of the coming battle and said, 'This is the eve.
'Good-bye. And may I have a letter soon'.

That Easter Monday was a day for praise,
It was such a lovely morning. In our garden
We sowed our earliest seeds, and in the orchard
The apple-bud was ripe. It was the eve,
There are three letters that you will not get.

Deceptively simple, it charms us until we get to the last line and realise what it conceals. That painted Easter egg (or was it chocolate?), kept for a week with such anticipation was possibly the last thing he ever ate. A few hours later on that Easter Monday Edward Thomas would be dead, struck down by a rogue shell as he was lighting his pipe.

There are three letters that you will not get. Think of the millions of letters those who fell in battle would never get. This is the first Easter of this Great War centenary that began last summer. I doubt if you came here wanting to be reminded of war on Easter morning. It was such a lovely morning Edward had written. Perhaps on a beautiful spring day in Picardy where, even in the desert of the front line a daffodil or two might dare to raise its head, perhaps Edward could forget the war for an instant. Maybe it’s possible as we keep this beautiful and holy feast in the Cathedral to forget the conflicts of our own time for an hour.  

Or so we think. But we must not leave those worries outside the church door. ‘Lest we forget’ matters just as as much on Easter Day as it does on Remembrance Sunday. Let me say why. Like the poem, St John’s Gospel takes us back to a garden. Peter and John come running to Jesus’ tomb. They find the stone rolled away, the cave empty. But someone else has been there all along, ever since before dawn: Mary Magdalen, the woman who had loved Jesus so intensely. When the two men go back she stays there, ‘weeping outside the tomb’. On that first Easter morning there are tears, just as there are tears today for so many in our world. But then comes the wonderful moment of recognition. She thinks the stranger is the gardener, wants to know where he has taken the body. ‘And Jesus said to her…’ But how do you possibly put into a word all that is conveyed as he calls her by her name. At that instant she understands, and believes. After the terrible ordeal of God Friday when she had stood close to the cross watching Jesus die, she has a rush of conviction, a surge of hope. Rabbouni! she exclaims.

This Easter garden is full of symbolism. Go and visit ours in the Galilee Chapel of this Cathedral. In one way it’s the beauty of spring time, the yearly marvel of nature’s renewal. ‘The winter is past, the flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come.’ But it’s much more than that. This garden takes us back to creation when, said the ancient story, God planted a garden in Eden and placed Adam there to look after it. St John is saying to us: here is a new paradise, indeed, a new world, a new creation. And yes, Jesus is indeed the gardener, just as Adam was, for this Last Adam comes into his garden on the first day of the week to begin his great work of re-making the world as God wants it to be. Morning has broken, like the first day. The day after Jesus has finished what he came to do, and has kept the Sabbath and rested in the tomb, the week begins all over again with a sunrise of wonder that heralds a new dawn for the world. It brings a new hope to raise up broken spirits. And with it the promise that the risen Christ will one day make all things new.

At Easter in 1917, like first century Judaea and our own 21st century, there are tears. They may be tears of personal grief and loss like Mary’s, like the bereaved who have lost cherished loved ones, with memories of Easters past that come flooding back this morning. This morning I am grieving a good colleague and friend I suddenly lost a week ago and trying to share the heartache his wife and children are going through. I am thinking of Jewish people keeping Passover this week like our ancestors, in fear of the future; thinking too of Christians under the iron fist of Islamic State who will celebrate Easter in terror; and Christian refugees far from home in Turkey and Jordan, and the families of the students in Kenya shot without mercy last week because they were Christians and not Muslims. Is it possible that human beings can be so cruel? If we have any feeling for humanity, our hearts break for the pain of the world. Just as God’s heart must break too as he weeps over us.

Yet Easter says to you, to me, to all of us, to the entire human family if only it would listen: do not lose heart. Do not be afraid. Reawaken the hope you once had. Or if you never had it, if hope has eluded you for a lifetime, go to the garden. Go to the empty tomb, go to the very place where it seems he is absent, and find that he is alive and present and among us. Find that as then, so now, he calls us by our name and invites us to step out of the shadows of the tomb into the marvellous light of resurrection.

Edward Thomas’s world was not very different from ours. Even on a beautiful spring day in Eastertime, death can stalk us as it did him. His widow’s memoir tells how he went to France deeply afraid, with an awful sense of foreboding. Yet his last letter to Eleanor recalling a hidden Easter egg still rises to the conviction that he will keep a day for praise. Like her poem, we sow seeds today, seeds of faith, of hope, and of overflowing love. What are they when the world is so dark and we protest ‘O God, why?’, when events baffle us and make us afraid, when our burdens and our planet’s feel just too heavy to bear? Faith and hope and love are everything. They give us back our disintegrated lives, put back together by the crucified and risen Lord. We glimpse how we can learn to trust once more, how life can begin again. The good news of Easter is that even at the grave, even when everything seems hopeless and we feel at our most helpless, we sing alleluia. Morning has broken! This is the day that the Lord has made. It’s a day for praise. He is risen.

Durham Cathedral, Easter Day 2015. John 20: 1-18

Friday, 3 April 2015

Bach's St John Passion: a short introduction

Does the St John Passion need any introduction?  Isn’t it one of those universal works of art that speak for themselves?

Let me speak personally for a moment.  The St John Passion was the first choral work I sang as a schoolboy in the early 1960s.  Singing the treble line gave me a lifelong love of Bach’s music.  More than that, it sowed the seeds of religious faith.  I look back on that spring half a century ago as a life-changing time that defined the course of my entire life.  What I have since come to appreciate is that in the long history of biblical interpretation, Bach is one of the great commentators on the Bible.  His music is art, not analysis, poetry rather than prose.  Yet the insights of his sacred music make him a theologian of the first order.  Albert Schweitzer, scholar both of Bach and Bible, said that ‘if we have once absorbed a biblical verse in Bach’s setting of it, we can never again conceive it in any other rhythm’.

To appreciate any of Bach’s religious works – cantatas, motets, masses, passions - we need to understand their libretti.  In Bach, the relationship between text and music is as inextricable as it is in Schubert’s Lieder or Wagner’s music dramas.  In the case of Bach’s two surviving Passions, it is clear that Bach had carefully studied the gospel accounts of the crucifixion and reflected their distinctive insights in his music.  The difference between the St John Passion and St Matthew is not principally Bach’s musical and artistic growth as a composer, as if the St John were merely a sketch for the later, larger and greater St Matthew: for only three years separate the two works.  No, the difference lies primarily in the kind of texts Bach was engaging with.  The passion accounts of St John and St Matthew are entirely different both as literature and as theology and spirituality.  So they naturally drew out of a composer finely attuned to the sensitivities of texts settings that are equally different and true to their unique sources. 

While both passions were written for the same liturgical context, they do evoke a different aesthetic and religious response.  St Matthew, focusing on the lonely agonised suffering of Jesus paints a tragic figure to whom we respond with a sense of keen sadness; we feel the tears in things, as Virgil put it.  His narrative with its changes of scene and pace allows for frequent pauses for reflection, and Bach takes full advantage of them in the chorales and arias.  St John, however, wants us to see in the cross the victorious consummation of divine love; his sufferer, while humiliated, is always majestic and noble, and this quality suffuses Bach’s setting throughout.  The narrative is faster and more relentless than Matthew’s with fewer opportunities for meditation – so there are only eight true arias; but on the other hand there is more scope in John for exploiting the dramatic possibilities of dialogue and the tension between the individual protagonists and the ever present malevolent crowd.  (We should however acknowledge that in two respects Bach filled out John’s narrative with episodes from St Matthew: the repentance of Peter after denying Jesus, and the rending of the temple veil and the earthquake after the crucifixion.  It is interesting that both of these Matthew episodes segue into exquisite arias that are reminiscent of the great contemplative arias of the St Matthew Passion, Ach mein Sinn and Zerfliesse mein Herze.) 

Let me try to illustrate how well Bach understood his text.  The heart of St John’s Gospel is the passion story.  In all four gospels, great emphasis is laid on the passion, so much so that they have been described as passion narratives with introductions.  In John’s case, the passion story proper begins not with the betrayal scene in chapter 18 but with Jesus’ triumphant arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday in chapter 12.  This means that more than one third of the book, 8 out of 21 chapters, is given to the last week of Jesus’ life.  The St John Passion is a musical setting of only the last part of this story.  This follows the medieval tradition in which those chapters, culminating in the death and burial of Jesus, were sung to plainchant in the Good Friday liturgy.  But this has to be understood in the light of the central themes of St John set out in what has gone before, particularly in chapters 12 to 17.  These are: love as sacrifice, glory as life laid down, the majesty of the suffering Christ whose crucifixion is exaltation and whose cross is a royal throne.  All this Bach understands with a profoundly theological and spiritual perspective.

Two examples from the Passion will make it clear how Bach the theologian informs Bach the musician.  The first is the great opening chorus, ‘Herr unser Herrscher’.  Lord, our Sovereign, your glory fills the whole earth! Show us by your Passion that you, the true Son of God, are glorified even in the deepest humiliation.  It is important to recognise that this text is a prayer to the Christ of the cross.  The key word is Herrlichkeit, ‘glory’, with its cognates Herrscher, ‘sovereign’ and verherrlicht, ‘glorified’.  This threefold reference to glory in two brief sentences is the clue both to the music of the chorus and to the work as a whole.  ‘Glory’ is St John’s most distinctive idea.  ‘We have seen his glory, full of grace and truth’ he says at the beginning: Herrlichkeit in Luther’s Bible, a word picked up frequently as the Gospel unfolds, where it specifically means the glory of the crucified Jesus. 

So the chorus sets the scene in which Bach conveys the paradox of glory revealed through suffering.  The restless string semiquavers and the woodwind dissonances create a disturbing, almost wild, sense of disorientation and unease.  Yet underneath the turmoil are the long pedal points in the orchestral bass that stabilise the music and ground it; while the cries of the chorus rising above the chaos establish who is in control of the sufferer’s destiny.  The answer is: Christ himself who, says St John, does not have his life taken from him but lays it down of his own will.  So the chorus acclaims his kingship even in his passion.  It is telling that this was not Bach’s first choice of opening chorus.  He originally placed here his great setting of the Lutheran chorale O Mensch bewein dein Sünde grosse: ‘O man, they grievous sin bemoan’ which concludes part 1 of the St Matthew Passion.  Bach decided that this hymn text, focusing on sin and repentance, did not sufficiently reflect the principal theme of John’s passion narrative.  The chorus he replaced it with, that we now have, is entirely right for the work it has to do in the St John Passion. 

My second example is the work’s climactic event, the moment of Jesus’ death.  The four gospels each depict his death in distinctive ways.  In Matthew and Mark, Jesus dies with a cry of abandonment: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’  Bach’s setting of those words in the St Matthew Passion is perhaps the most agonised music he ever wrote.  In Luke, Jesus dies the serene death of the obedient martyr: ‘Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit’.  But in John, the last word from the cross is a single word in Greek: tetelestai, ‘It is accomplished!’.  That word is the clue to the entire Passion and indeed to the Fourth Gospel.  What does it mean?

Bach sets the words Es ist vollbracht to a motif that seems to fall to the ground and die, echoing the bow of the head with which John says Jesus ‘gives up his spirit’.  Does Bach mean it to die away into nothing, as if it stands for resigned acceptance of an inevitable, tragic destiny with the overtones of defeat: ‘it’s all over’?  I doubt that.  We must read his meaning in the light of the movement that immediately follows it.  Es ist vollbracht begins as one of those poignantly beautiful contralto arias which Bach excelled at, where the soul meditates on the mystery of death.  But he suddenly interrupts this serene atmosphere with a stirring victory song: ‘the hero of Judah wins with triumph and ends the fight’.  His message is that while death is indeed ‘the last enemy’, this death marks the beginning of the great reversal through which life is given back to the world: not defeat but victory.  This means that the singer of Christus who takes his leave of the work with these all-important couple of bars somehow has to marry the fall of the 6 note musical phrase to the rise of spiritual hope and the expectation of triumph. It calls for musicianship of the highest order. 

And Bach will not let the word vollbracht go.  After the briefest of recitatives telling how Jesus ‘bowed his head and died’ comes one of the great surprises of the Passion.  Precisely where we would expect another sombre meditation on mortality, Bach instead launches into a radiant 12/8 D major aria for bass and chorus, Mein teurer Heiland. Here the soul converses with the departed Christ about how the gate of heaven is opened through his suffering.  ‘My beloved Saviour, let me ask you, as you are nailed to the cross and have yourself said it is accomplished: am I released from death?’  So this time es ist vollbracht features in a dance of contented release joy.  All this is entirely different from the way Bach treats the equivalent scene in St Matthew, but only because those gospels depict the scene in sharply contrasting ways.   For John, Golgotha is a not only a place of pain but – and pre-eminently – a place of transfiguration.  This is what Bach so marvellously captures. 

Let me offer one final comment on the work as a whole.  The artistry with which the recitatives and choruses, arias and chorales are worked into a coherent whole is Bach’s great achievement.  He recognises how John’s passion narrative is skilfully constructed as a series of scenes in which the action oscillates between personal encounters on the one hand, and public activity on the other.  Now we are in the high priest’s house, or Pilate’s chamber, or with Mary and the beloved disciple at the foot of the cross.  Their inner complex worlds are explored with acute psychological awareness.  But then we find ourselves abruptly thrust into the large arenas where history is forged: the garden of the arrest, the praetorium, the via dolorosa, Golgotha.  The interplay in the passion between private and public, intimacy and empire Bach exploits to the full.  He understands how the inward drama of individual hearts and souls is played out as games of politics and power in front of an entire world.  He knows that the passion is a story that works on many different levels.  This is reflected in the colouring and texture of the music, the symbolism of its motifs, and a finely judged pace that respects the hectic energy that drives the narrative, yet provides spaces for pause and meditation at the critical points that allow the drama, and us, to draw breath. 

You don’t have to be a biblical scholar, liturgical historian or musicologist to appreciate the depth of this work. Its greatness and its poignancy do not derive from any self-conscious artifice on Bach’s part, nor simply from his technical skill.  It comes from the direct appeal it makes to us for the engagement not only of mind but heart.  When the citizens of Leipzig came to church on Good Friday 1724, and heard the first, extraordinary notes of the opening chorus, did they realise that music had crossed a new threshold in its power to turn spectators into participants?  It is in that spirit that I invite us to listen to the St John Passion tonight. 

The Sage, Gateshead, Easter Eve 2011



Sunday, 29 March 2015

A Dark and Dreadful Death

This is the sixth in our series of sermons on St Mark’s passion narrative. Throughout Lent we have walked the via dolorosa with Jesus. Today we have arrived at its awful destination: Golgotha, crucifixion, darkness, desolation and pain. It is a world away from Palm Sunday with its hosanna acclamations and royal expectations. If ever you needed a reason not to trust a crowd, it is Palm Sunday. For look what has become of this king! The mob has bellowed for his crucifixion. He cannot, will not, save himself from this destiny, St Mark’s three fateful ‘musts’ that have pointed to this journey’s end. Today, on this Sunday of the Passion, we contemplate him as the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.

If we are honest, part of us does not know what to make of him hanging there. The trouble is, we know this story too well. We know, or think we know, what lies beyond the end of it, which is next Sunday’s theme. We also know how the other three evangelists tell it and they colour our reading of St Mark. If we only had this first among the gospels, it would both appal and baffle us. We would be baffled because Mark does not explain why the innocent Son of Man should undergo such suffering. We would be appalled because Mark does not spare us the agony: the darkness that falls on the scene, the desperation of this man’s last cry, the hopelessness of this death. And worst of all perhaps, he endures all this alone, taunted and mocked on every side, deserted by his friends, abandoned by God. This is a narrative of dread. We should tremble to read it.

Let me explore some of the themes in this part of the story. The first is the darkness. Forget about eclipses, even though they are recent memory this year. Mark’s darkness is altogether deeper than a mere shadow. It’s the darkness of judgment in our lesson from Amos which Mark quotes earlier in the gospel in a famous apocalyptic passage. ‘In those days after that suffering, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, and that stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken’ (13.24-5). Jesus is speaking just before the passion narrative begins. He says that the kingdom of God cannot come until there is an utter collapse of the present world order: the great stones of the temple will be toppled, human communities and relationships will disintegrate, the entire cosmos will fall in an instant like a house of cards. Mark expects us to remember that saying, so that when we hear of the sun’s light failing in the middle of the day, we recognise what it represents. It is the end of the world, and it is the end of Jesus’s world. He must be extinguished like the sun. He must collapse and die as everything dies round him.

That is dreadful enough. But my second theme is darker still: Jesus’s last word from the cross. Was ever a cry more desperate and more desolate than this awful cry with which he dies? Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? We must tread carefully here, for we are on holy ground. Our Lama Sabachthani crucifix in the north quire aisle captures something of it: the figure of Jesus whittled down to its bare essentials like the skeleton of a dead tree, his back arched in agonising pain. ‘Was ever grief like mine’ he seems to say to us. But this is more than physical suffering. There is a godforsakenness of the soul as the world ends for him and his existence is snuffed out. ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ The quotation is of course from Psalm 22, one of the psalms like 69 that so profoundly influenced the way in which the evangelists shaped their passion stories. These psalms end on a note of hope that God does not forget his suffering children and will bring them to a place of deliverance and thankfulness. Does Jesus anticipate the rest of the psalm when he cries out in its opening words, as if he can envisage his own resurrection? I doubt it. I believe that as the abyss opens up beneath him, he takes to his lips the words no doubt learned from childhood that so aptly echo his despair. God has handed him over, betrayed him. He has turned his face away. He may cry, but there is no answer. Elijah will not come to save him.

At the instant of his death, an extraordinary event takes place not far away from Golgotha. This is my third theme: ‘the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom’. For the evangelists, this was remembered as deeply significant on that terrible Friday afternoon. But what did it represent to them? The ‘veil’ hid the holiest part of the temple where only the high priest was allowed to go once a year on the Day of Atonement. Does this violent tearing symbolise the passing of the old religion with its worn-out dependence on rituals and ceremonies? For now a new and living way to God is opened up through the blood of Jesus.

And Mark sees this as another scene in the apocalyptic drama acted out on the cross. Like the darkness at noon, like Jesus’ wrecking of the money-changers’ tables in the temple precinct, the rent veil stands for judgment on Jerusalem and its religious institutions. The old must be swept away before the new comes. When Mark wrote, probably in the 60s of the first century, the temple was about to be destroyed by the Romans. The unthinkable would happen. Was this not a sign of the end of days? In his description of the tearing of the temple veil, Mark uses a word he has already used early in his Gospel. At Jesus’ baptism, he says that the sky is ‘torn open’ as the dove descends and the voice from heaven speaks, and Jesus announces that the kingdom of God is at hand. The rending of sky and curtain is linked to a new world order we call the kingdom. But this can only happen if he drinks the cup we heard about early on in this series, this cup that will not pass from him. He must drink from the pressed grapes of the vine-press of the wrath of God. If he is to save the world, he must be utterly crushed.

What strange work is set before us in Holy Week at Golgotha! But what do we need to do as we watch these events unfold? Mark answers his own question. Forget the crowds shouting hosanna one day and crucify the next; forget the disciples who forsook Jesus and fled, forget the cynics who hail him as king, or the thieves and soldiers who mock him. There is an individual who stands out from the crowd and sees differently: the centurion. Maybe he is in charge of the soldiers who have crucified Jesus. Watching, this gentile Roman, this Jew-hater, this military man whose trade is power and cruelty, has an epiphany. ‘Surely, this man was the Son of God.’ Not just innocent, not just a good man, but the Son of God. The centurion isn’t a bystander now. He has become a participant whose words form the climax of the entire Gospel in one of the Bible’s great recognition-scenes. Mark sees this not just as one man’s confession of faith but as speaking for all humanity, for us as we acknowledge the majesty of this crucified Messiah. Bach took it this way when he gave these immortal words to the full chorus in his St Matthew Passion, the two greatest bars of music ever written. The only reason Mark is writing his Gospel is to make believers out of us, to draw us from being bystanders to participants as we become subjects of God’s kingdom and follow the crucified Lord. In last week’s preacher’s words, God renounces all power but the power of love, yet faith is possible in the teeth of suffering and ridicule. In the darkness, we can still believe.

Which means that we cannot simply watch him hanging there, but must summon up an act of faith that acclaims him as our Lord, and puts right our perspective on the world as God’s, with ourselves as loyal followers and subjects. To mould the church’s faith and our own in this cross-shaped way is the only reason we observe Holy Week with such care and devotion. By remembering in this way, we place the cross at the very centre of our lives, this everlasting sign of God’s ‘tender love towards mankind’, this saving death that sets us free to live again, this life freely poured out for us. Yes, indeed. ‘It is a thing most wonderful’.

Durham Cathedral, Palm Sunday 2015
Amos 8.9-12, Mark 15.33-41

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Lifted Up

I want to say something briefly about the paragraph I put in the notice sheet today. There was never going to be a good time to tell you that Jenny and I will be leaving Durham when I retire later this year. It will be hard to say goodbye to all of you and all of this when September comes. But that is not for another 6 months, and that’s still two equinoxes and many festivals away. As we celebrate 12 years here this coming Friday, St Cuthbert’s Day, we are deeply thankful for all that it has meant to live and work among you. Thankfulness is what matters most. That’s why we are here at the eucharist. So let me press on with my sermon.   

‘So must the Son of Man be lifted up’ says the Gospel.

In the New Testament, height is exhilarating and it is ominous.  As an exhilarating word, it means victory, kingship, or simply being near to God.  Jesus ‘ascends’ to take up his throne; he reigns on high; he is ‘above’ all things.  He is transfigured on a mountain; he ascends to his Father from a hill top; he goes up into high remote places to be alone and pray.  The New Testament calls him our ‘high priest’ who has passed through the heavens and has the skies beneath his feet. As an ominous word, however, height can stand for anxiety, threat, even evil.  When the devil tempts Jesus, he takes him up a high mountain, and then up on to a pinnacle of the temple. He has to climb up to do battle with Satan and triumph over evil. One New Testament letter refers to the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places; today’s reading speaks about the ‘ruler of the power of the air’. In the gospels, there is a turning point when Jesus must leave Galilee and ‘go up’ to Jerusalem to face suffering and death.  In the Old Testament, the Hebrews always ‘went up’ to the city and its temple for the joyous pilgrim feasts. When you fly El-Al to Tel Aviv you are ‘going up’: that’s what the name means. But for Jesus at Passover time, ‘going up’ will mean not living but dying. ‘I was glad when they said unto me, let us go to the house of the Lord’. But for Jesus it will be his death sentence.   

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus uses the image of height in a striking way.  ‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up’. What is this ‘lifted up’?  Jesus goes on to hint at what it means. ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…’  He gave. In St John, this means the incarnation, the Word made flesh. But it means more than that. It means giving to the fullest extent, loving ‘to the end’.  And if we still do not understand, we need only go to the next occasion Jesus speaks about being ‘lifted up’ when, St John adds: ‘he said this to indicate by what death he would die.’  To be ‘lifted up’ means being crucified. It means toiling slowly and painfully up another of those gospel summits, the hill of Golgotha.  It means being strung up in the sight of heaven and earth.  It means ropes and nails and mocking soldiers and sour wine.  It means the passion of the Christ, his dying and death.  The phrase comes three times in St John’s Gospel, just as three times in St Mark, the Son of Man must be betrayed to sinners and be put to death.  These are the things we begin to think about as on this Refreshment Sunday, Lent moves towards Passiontide as inevitably as Jesus moves toward the cross.

In the crucifixion, Jesus’ ‘hour’ has finally come. At one level it’s the ‘hour’ of disgrace, dishonour. To be lifted up on Golgotha is, paradoxically, to be abased, like humankind in the psalm becoming ‘lower than the angels’, so low as to share the fate of bandits, thieves and murderers; a suffering servant ‘despised and rejected by men’.  Yet in this terrible degradation St John sees something else.  He speaks of it as a kind of splendour, a transfiguration. It’s the paradox only the eyes of faith can discern.  Jesus is ‘lifted up’, he says, because in his humiliation he is exalted as a king on his throne, the one who reigns in triumph on the tree as the ancient passion hymns put it.  St John speaks often about Jesus being ‘glorified’ – and if we were to ask him where most of all we see the glory of the only begotten Son, full of grace and truth, he would not hesitate to answer: here, at the cross, where love is poured out, where God’s self-emptying, begun in the incarnation, is complete.  So the last word of Jesus from the cross is very different from the other gospels.  It isn’t the desolate cry of St Mark, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’; nor the trustful, obedient prayer of St Luke, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’.  It’s a single word in Greek, tetelestai, ‘It is accomplished!’: a shout of victory, for the work of God is finished, and the salvation of the world is assured.

Today we stand near the threshold of Passiontide, and begin to contemplate ‘this thing most wonderful’, Jesus lifted up on the cross for the world.  What does God want of us as we tell once more this strange and wonderful story that will take us through Holy Week and on to the day of resurrection?  I think there is only one thing God wants of us. It is that we should recognise who and what we are by recognising who and what Jesus is.  I mean that we must acknowledge in a new way that we are the subjects of the Son of God who hangs there, and give him our allegiance as our king. Passiontide is a time to ask ourselves: what does it mean to be his disciples, to walk in the way of the cross, to bear witness to the man of sorrows? We need to recall the ashen cross on our foreheads at the beginning of Lent and how we were reminded to turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.  It’s time to look forward to renewing our baptism vows at Easter and reawaken the memory of how we were marked with cross when our Christian journey began.  As the earth is renewed at springtime, it’s time for us to renew ourselves as God’s people who belong to the King of love and truth.

We know that it was not the nails that kept him hanging on the cross, but only love. ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ ‘Rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us’ says Ephesians of God’s infinite grace towards us. So love must beget love, his love drawing out of us our belief, our faith, and most of all our love for the One who first loved us: On Mothering Sunday, this rich language carries a particular association: the sheer cost of begetting and birthing and nurturing the bundle of life that is each of us. Our mothers carry all their lives the marks of what it cost to bring us into the world. Julian of Norwich knew this when she famously said: ‘Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother; I am the Light and the Grace which is love, I am the One who makes you love’. ‘Love’s endeavour, love’s expense’ is what good mothering means in both its agony and ecstasy. This is how God is, in the wideness of his mercy.

So we gaze on the One we have pierced, high and lifted up in majesty on the cross; we place our hands in his wounded side, and are thankful: for ourselves, indeed, but also on behalf of all humanity, this ‘world’ that God so loved. We shall hear in next week’s gospel how Jesus says: ‘When I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all people to myself’. One day that great expectation will be fulfilled. The cross seems a strange and lowly place to begin – or do I mean accomplish? - this project of salvation. But the weakness of God is stronger than mortals, his foolishness is wiser than our human wisdom.

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of man’s mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.

Love has its reasons of which reason knows nothing but faith understands everything. For as Julian said, ‘Love awakens our desire, and then gives itself to us as its ultimate fulfilment and goal.’ And as we come to desire him with all our heart, we learn to be God’s people once again and give our life, our soul, our all to this ‘love so amazing, so divine’.

Durham Cathedral
Lent 4, Refreshment/Mothering Sunday, 15 March 2015 
Ephesians 2.1-10, John 3.14-21

Sunday, 1 March 2015

The Cup of Pain and Mercy

This is the second in our Lenten series of sermons on the Passion Narrative in St Mark’s Gospel, Christ our Passover. Today we find Jesus in the upper room eating the Passover meal with his disciples, and afterwards, in the garden of Gethsemane where, as he faces his last ordeal, he prays to his Father. This part of the story is framed by two of Jesus’ most portentous sayings. Last week’s passage ended: ‘the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born’. Now, the same word shatters the silent agony of Gethsemane, when the disciples are heavy with sleep. ‘Arise, let us be going. Behold, my betrayer is at hand.’

We heard last week how at supper, Jesus foretells that one of his friends will betray him. This word has already featured in Mark’s Gospel near the beginning, when Judas Iscariot is introduced as a disciple. Literally it means ‘hand over’. It is not by itself a sinister idea: in Greek, paradosis simply means that which is ‘delivered’ or ‘handed on’, the same as the Latin traditio: the church’s ‘tradition’ is what is received from others and passed on to the next generation. In St Paul’s own account of the last supper, he uses the same word: ‘I received from the Lord what I am handing on to you’.

However, in the passion narrative, two things give this innocent word a darker nuance. The first is that it is now carrying the sense of Jesus being passed over from one kind of power to another. Up to now, he has been obedient to his Father’s purpose as the one announced in his baptism and then his transfiguration as God’s Son, the beloved. In his freely-chosen submission to God, he lives out the prayer he has taught his followers: ‘your will be done on earth as in heaven’. But now he is handed over to a different authority, the ‘principalities and powers’ of this age who have quite other purposes in mind for the Son of Man. He becomes the passive victim, no longer the agent who goes around doing good, but now one who is ‘done to’ by others. And the first act of these others, as we shall learn next week, is to arrest him, not with the weapons of truth and justice but with violence, seized by bandits who are armed with swords and clubs.

But there is a bigger context here. For St Mark sees paradosis, this ‘handing over’ as nothing less than the act of God himself. Three times in the gospel Jesus has foretold that the Son of Man ‘must undergo great suffering, and be rejected… and after three days rise again.’ Why this necessity? This is the great mystery the Passion Narrative draws us into. The sheer length and detail of the story in all four gospels tells us that the evangelists saw the crucifixion as inescapably central to the gospel. It was not an accident. It was not mischance. It was intended all along within God’s purpose of redemption. ‘The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ says Jesus earlier. In the upper room, the cup of wine that is ‘my blood of the covenant poured out for many’ is the way to the promised future he has taught his disciples to pray for. ‘Your kingdom come.’ ‘I shall never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’ In the gospels, without the cross, there can be no kingdom, no future when God’s passover people will be freed from all that enslaves them. He must suffer. Es muss sein.
This cup of destiny features in both parts of today’s text. At the last supper, the cup of wine, along with the broken bread, is a living symbol of a death that is like the passover lamb. It heralds the day of salvation in which a redeemed people ‘pass over’ from death to life. It is both a memory and a future promise. It looks back with gratitude for a redemption that has been won, and looks forward to the kingdom of peace, that messianic banquet where people will sit and feast in the presence of God himself. At the passover meal, the cup is a symbol of a people’s destiny. And this is the destiny Jesus takes upon himself as the true Israelite looking forward to the long-promised day when God acts, and he drinks it anew in his kingdom.

And the same is true in the garden. After singing the passover hallel psalms of redemption, they go to a place whose name means ‘pressure’, Gethsemane where olives grew and their oil was crushed out of them. Here the life of Jesus begins to be pressed out of him as he faces the inevitable end that he has spoken about for so long. ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I will but what you will’. I said just now that for Mark, for Jesus, there is no question but that the passion is intended by God all along. And this is both the reason for his agonised prayer and the answer to it. Jesus does not dispute who it is who holds out this cup to him. Did he have in his mind Psalm 75: ‘In the hand of the Lord there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed’. These are the grapes that are crushed in the vineyard of the wrath of God. ‘He will pour a draught from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.’
Can this be what his Father is holding out to him commanding him to drink it and die? No wonder he begs God to take it away. St Mark will tell of how on the cross, Jesus prays Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani, ‘my God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ Gethsemane is the first stage of a terrible godforsakenness. Jesus takes upon himself the fate of the wicked of the earth from whom God turns his face away. They and he have no choice but to drink. As St Paul says, Christ became a curse for us. It is the hour of darkness. Nevertheless, in the midst of this mental and spiritual agony, Jesus’ obedience does not waver. He hears the echo of his own words: he must undergo this. ‘Not what I will but what you will.’ Once more it is the language of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘your will be done on earth as in heaven’. What he prays, and teaches us to pray, he himself lives out in his steadfast obedience. If ever the words of this prayer were fulfilled, it is here in Gethsemane: ‘lead us not into temptation’, or rather, ‘save us from the time of trial’, peirasmos, that ordeal at the end of days that makes or breaks the human sufferer.

In Gethsemane, Jesus tells his disciples: ‘sit here while I pray’. I see in this an echo of the story in Genesis that the evangelists will have had in mind as they told of the passion of Jesus. When God commands Abraham to take his beloved child Isaac and sacrifice him on a mountain far away, he tells his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’ Here is Jesus walking away from his young men, his disciples with only his trusted intimates. Does he hope against hope, does he pray that like Isaac, he will avert the fire and the knife while a ram caught in a thicket is offered instead? Here in Gethsemane, he learns that there is no escape. He too is a Son like Isaac, an only Son of a Father’s love yet that makes a terrible claim upon him. He too must ascend a mountain, Golgotha, be offered on that altar and submit to the will of the Father who requires this awful act of obedience.

So the cup means both pain and mercy. In being ‘handed over’ by God and man, by his submission to his Father’s will, by drinking of the foaming wine and becoming a curse, by his cry of despair in the darkness, by all that he endured, we are ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven. Because he does not refuse the cup the Father offers him, it passes from us. And yet, a cup is still held out to us. We remember it at every eucharist. Only now, it is gift. It is salvation. It is life. It is the promise of the kingdom. And even when the cost of walking the way of the cross is that we shall undergo our own Gethsemane ordeals, we know that they are endurable because Jesus has walked this via dolorosa before us and transformed the cup of destiny. George Herbert gives us the words in a meditation called ‘The Agonie’. It looks on the cross as the place where the cup of pain and mercy is filled to the brim and offered.

Love is that liquor, sweet and most divine
Which my God tastes as blood, but I as wine.

Durham Cathedral, Lent 2, 1 March 2015 (Mark 14.22-42)

Sunday, 8 February 2015

At the Dangerous Edge of Things

Robert Browning spoke about ‘the dangerous edge of things’. Today’s New Testament lesson speaks about events that take people to the extremes of their experience, and it does indeed feel edgy and dangerous.  The disciples in their boat on Galilee struggle against the storm.  The waves crash over the flimsy craft and it threatens to capsize. The Lord, asleep in the hold, is woken by terrified cries of panic: ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ He rebukes the chaotic wind and waves and there is a great calm. Safely on dry land, it’s the same story in another guise. Jesus takes on the chaos in human life: the Gadarene man and other victims whose lives are being possessed by demons, or by disease and disability that reduce their victims to chaos. As on the lake, mortals clamour desperately for help, beg to touch even the hem of his garment.  Who is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, demons, sickness and death and they obey him?
Just before the reading from Genesis, at the very beginning of the Bible, we learned how ‘the earth was a ‘formless void’: tohu wavohu, a rare moment of Hebrew rhyme.  That first creation story in Genesis 1 tells how shape and order emerge out of the chaotic deep: light and dark, sea and dry land, vegetation, the different orders of life in earth, air and water; and humanity as the crown of God’s achievement.  This patterning of time, space and the material world is fundamental to a cosmos that is stable and trustworthy.  In this universe that is ‘very good’, chaos has no place. And although the lesson we heard from Genesis offered us a much earlier story of creation, what scholars call the Jahwist’s version, with the Bible as it now is we can’t help but read the second story in the light of the first. When we do, it echoes the same primordial pattern. God is at work to shape a world like an artist or craftsman. When Michaelangelo forged a sculpture, he said that the shape was already there in the stone; it was simply a matter of revealing it. I like the idea of God chipping away with infinite skill to bring out the fundamental shape and structure of reality from the undifferentiated chaos of matter.
In the ancient world, order was experienced as precarious. There was an ever-present fear that the chaos might return to overwhelm hard-won civilisation.  In the psalms, Yhwh is king over cataract and flood who has crushed the heads of the monsters of the deep; in today’s, he ‘stilleth the raging of the sea: and the noise of the waves and the madness of the people.  And that madness tells that the threat is not only natural but human.  The raging of the enemy is personified as an overwhelming force which only the mighty power of Yhwh can subdue: ‘why do the nations rage so furiously together?’  In a bleak vision of Jeremiah, the formless void appears again:  ‘I looked on the earth and lo, it was tohu wavohu, waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light.  I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro.  I looked, and lo, there was no-one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.  I looked and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger’.  This is Genesis wound backwards from cosmos to chaos, its artistry unravelling to a terrible, anarchic collapse. 
If once, people doubted that atavistic fears like these had been banished by the onward and upward march of progress, this last century surely dispelled the fantasy. Tohu wavohu does not only belong to the ancients.  A century ago, an unsuspecting world sleep-walked into a Great War. Seventy years ago, the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau were opened to reveal the unspeakable horror of what had gone on under the Nazis. I was brought up under the shadow of the Bomb: the Cuban Missile Crisis taught me how deeply untrustworthy the world is. I learned to be afraid. Now we have Al Qaida and Boko Haram and Isis, not to mention climate change, human trafficking, the abuses that drive asylum seekers to our shores. They all point to tohu wavohu as a present reality for us, both as nameless fear and felt reality, consequences most of them of what the Prayer Book collect calls ‘the unruly wills and affections of sinful men’. 
The history of this Benedictine cathedral reminds us how in the 6th century St Benedict set about creating communities of stability and order when the Roman Empire was in its final descent into anarchy.  Perhaps his Rule saved Christian Europe from the dark ages.  His enterprise could be a model for mission today: intelligent religion marked not by easy successes or showy drama but by the sustained spiritual imagination and commitment to live with complexity.  In his book A Staircase for Silence Alan Ecclestone offers clues as to how we might set about this.  He says that only a radical deepening and broadening of our vision is equal to the task of bringing to birth and nourishing a spirituality strong, generous and inspiring enough to help men and women…. grow up as truly human beings in the immensely complicated world that lies ahead. That spiri­tuality must provide a disciplined way of living in which growth to the fullest possible stature of each is made the concern of all. It requires a spirituality [that] relates the creativity, the humanising and the unification of mankind in one growing experience of mutual love. The world may well be entering a yet darker age than any known before. The demands laid on the spirituality needed during such time will be correspondingly greater.

So we must not be paralysed by the storm, hide in the bowels of our ship, never venturing on deck to get the measure of the tempests that rage outside and within. At those times when we stand on some dangerous edge of things – in personal life, in world crises, the first thing is to imitate the mariners at the start of the Tempest and cry out, ‘to prayers, to prayers!’: like the disciples, the vessel we are sailing is so tiny and the sea is so terrifying and big. But as we face our fear, assess the danger, say our prayers and help one another to find strength, we find that Christ was hidden in the darkness all along, and is there beside us, rebuking but also cheering us: ‘where is your faith?’

The tornados and tsunamis of life put hard choices to us that call for hard decisions. When the crisis comes, do we have the spiritual resources to respond?  Even in the storm, especially then, we need to keep the doors of perception open so that God can come anew to us, as he did to the possessed man by the lake and to the disciples in the boat. The Lord’s Prayer that we utter every day has as its focus how we fare in the time of trial, how we endure Gethsemane when we cry in despair, ‘let this cup pass from me’. When it comes to our great ordeals, what would we do? What shall we do?

This is where Christian character is tested. And I wonder, as I hear the news day by day and feel profoundly despondent about it, whether my Christianity is being called to some test of resilience and maturity it has never had to undergo before. This is no time for easy religion, play-acting our Christian profession. Our faith needs to go to the heart and change us. This is why we need those Benedictine virtues of stability, obedience and conversion of life in our churches and our personal lives.  They shape us to live by the values of the gospel, so that life is transformed and we begin to make a difference in the world: as Benedict did, holding on for dear life as the world fell apart around him, yet never despairing of the mercy of God. Which is why, when big storms break against the shores of our complacency, and we are shaken by earthquake, wind and fire, we need to hear the voice that calls out to us, ‘where is your faith?’, the still small voice that gives us the strength not to be afraid. And then, God willing, we shall live to praise his name, and tell how much he has done for us.

Durham Cathedral, 8 February 2015, Genesis 2.4a-end, Luke 8: 22-39