Finding God with Paul

I confess to being a Romantic and this year I have fallen in love with Epiphany

I love the central idea of the Manifestation – the exploration of the many ways that we see God, that we find Him and He finds us – in particular, the idea that God found us in Jesus Christ and that we can find God in Him

I love the Magi – the wise men the astrologers who were what we might now call ‘seekers’

I love the star which is the light of Christ – the beacon for us to follow and the torch by which we might show the way to others

I love the hymns with their return to the minor key – I have never really grown out of being a melancholic, moody adolescent  – like We three kings of orient are with my favourite verse:

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.

I love the link to Isaiah’s chapter 60 which is a kind of second subject in the Epiphany symphony – ‘Arise and Shine for your light has come and the glory of the lord has risen upon you.’

One distinguishing thing about being Ordained is the commitment to say the daily offices, ideally both morning and evening prayer

In the last week we have been saying these verses of Isaiah 60 each morning

And each evening we have been singing the hymn ‘Worship the lord in the beauty of holiness’ (If Fr Adrian is present then he actually makes us sing it)

And so truly: mornings of joy give for evenings of tearfulness!

This hymn is of course based in part on our psalm for this evening – Psalm 96

Did I mention that I have also fallen in love with the Psalms? – though that was some time ago.

I had been looking for a book on the Psalms to go a little deeper into them and I asked Adrian to recommend one – he suggested The Psalms – Translated Interpreted in the Light of Hebrew Life and Worship by Elmer Leslie which he feared may have written before I was born.  I checked and he was right – in fact it was written in 1949 only shortly after my Father’s birth – but it is very good!

From this book I learned that 96 is a very appropriate Epiphany psalm as it is believed to have been written for annual festival of the enthronement of the Lord – when Yahweh was worshipped as king of Israel

Moreover, it begins with another of our Epiphany themes – making things new

‘O sing unto the Lord a new song’

Part of the effect of saying the Office is to slow us down during a busy day and to pay attention.  Another is to introduce pieces of scripture in juxtaposition to one another.  When we do this we see resonances and connections – we notice things we have not seen before – we make things new and, with God’s help, we can sing a new song

One of the things one immediately notices is the profound interrelatedness of the Old and New testaments – in particular, in the Psalms and the Prophets.

Modern translators in their wisdom can obfuscate some of these resonances

So in our reading from Ezekiel in the gender neutral language of the NRSV we have just heard:

He said to me, mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me

Nothing special about that – but then if we use the verbatim KJV translation we get:

He said unto me, Son of man, I send thee to the children of Israel, to a rebellious nation that hath rebelled against me

‘Son of man’ making a link with the language Jesus uses to describe himself in the Gospels

Sometimes, however, the modern translation is helpful.  The King James renders Ezekiel thus:

And he said unto me, son of man, cause thy belly to eat, and fill thy bowels with this roll that I give thee.  Then did I eat it; and it was in my mouth as honey for sweetness.

I am thinking Swiss roll or fig roll?

But no!  Of course it is a rolled up papyrus scroll – that he is talking about.

And when one thinks of that image, of eating a scroll of words, is it fanciful to connect those words with the ‘Word’ in the first Chapter of John’s Gospel?  The Word which was made flesh and which we consume in the Eucharist?  But I am getting ahead of myself…

In the opening chapter of his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes ‘God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace’ thereby making a reference back to the 49th chapter of the prophecy of Isaiah which we heard at our Eucharist this morning:

Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.

And so when we have Paul recalling the revelation of God to himself – a manifestation of God – he is comparing himself to the prophet Isaiah

Did I mention that I have come to love St Paul?

 

I have had a series of Pauline epiphanies in the course of my training

The first came when I read those great words later in the book of Galatians

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28-29)

I loved the rhetoric of the language and the theology – and indeed the ethics.

The greatest epiphany though came when I read the passage in 1 Corinthians 11

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’

You are doubtless familiar with the words

But what did this mean – for I received from the lord?  Did he not get this information from Peter and James – the apostles who were there?

But then he says in the letter to the Galatians as we have just heard:

For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

Moreover:

When God, … was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.

What is this?  Did he not get instruction about Christ from the apostles?

Certainly, we struggle to find details of Christ’s life or teaching in the letters of Paul.

Did this also make sense of the mysterious omission of Eucharistic language in John’s account of the last supper?

A further dimension to the mystery became apparent to me when visiting a synagogue in Kingston as part of my training – the service was a bit like this one – singing of songs including the psalms, a reading from the Torah and preaching on it

Then as we left the prayer hall for tea and coffee we were offered a piece of bread and a small glass of wine

And they do that every week as a celebration not of a death but of life – of the gifts of God.  A celebration – a eucharist?

So what are we to make of this?  Is it possible that the celebration of the Eucharist is not the handing down of a tradition of the actual last supper by the Apostles but rather a re-interpretation of a well-established Jewish ritual into a Christian context by Paul?

Personally, I think that is too much.  But it does seem that Paul was at the very least one of the first to see the significance of these events as we understand them and to see them in the light of the theology of Passover- Paul’s divinely inspired interpretation of Jesus death as the sacrificial victim – the ultimate firstborn – the consecration of a new covenant.

Whatever the hermeneutics of these ideas, what surely matters most is his recognition that this meal symbolised the end of fear of death and the celebration of a spiritual communion of all people in Jesus Christ.

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain.

Assuredly there is the ‘beauty of holiness’ in this

 

We have been challenging ourselves in this season of Epiphany to say where we find God

For me God is to be found in the connectedness of all things.  And so the interconnectedness of scripture is in itself a Manifestation of the divine

For me Christ appears each week in bread and wine in a moment of sublime connectedness – where the present meets the omnipresent, the immanent the transcendent, where everything which has happened meets everything which shall be, where the Passover meal meets the Messiah, where history meets story and faith finds hope.

And wherever we find God, our response should surely be that of Paul – to tell our story of where we find Him and to proclaim it to others ‘so that they too might come to believe’

If we are looking for a New Song for 2017 then perhaps we can make it this.  Amen

Sermon preached by Christopher Hancock at St Martin of Tours, Epsom on 15th January, 2017

Psalm 96

Ezekiel 2:1-3:4

Galatians 1:11-end

Rise and Shine – I have had an Epiphany!

So it’s over.

I was in London on Friday and the streets were littered with the sad sight of horizontal browning Christmas trees cast out into the street

Retailers everywhere had religiously taken their decorations down in order to avoid a year of bad luck – there was even a toppled pine on the manicured gravel outside Buckingham Palace

Epiphany marks the end of Christmas and having Epiphany at the end of the holiday gives the impression that the wise men arrive late at the party

Having got lost following the star – they overruled the sat nav and went to Jerusalem – surely the king must be born in a palace in Jerusalem, not in little Bethlehem?

We have the sense that the shepherds and the angels have left, all the champagne and canapés have gone and they catch the holy family as they are packing their bags about to head off to Egypt

.Like a church visitor in the offertory hymn, apologetically they fumble in their wallets and pull out some gifts

Who are these not so wise men?

Matthew calls them Magi – Persian astrologers – and they provide an important role in his gospel

They come from the east from the land of the birthplace of Abraham, Abraham who was introduced as the ancestor of Jesus in the genealogy with which Matthew began his gospel (Mt 1:1)

They come from the East – from the land of Balaam, the famous diviner in the book of Numbers (Numbers 22-24).

They struggle with the interpretation of the signs of the times and as such remind us of those other stories of divination – the interpretation of dreams by Moses – Moses who was rescued from a jealous tyrant and would rescue his people – Moses who is the prototype for the messianic saviour Jesus

Their gifts of Gold and Frankincense recall the prophesies of Israel which we have just heard in Isaiah 60 and in Psalm 72.  The songs and prophesies which themselves recall the visit to Solomon of the Queen of Sheba who ‘came to Jerusalem with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices, and very much gold’ (1 Kings 10:2);

The visit of the Magi is:

  •  a proof of kingship
  • a fulfilment of prophesy, and
  • perhaps most importantly for us, it is a prediction of the important role of the Gentiles – that the future of Christianity which began as a message to the Jews is to be taken up by the rest of the world.

The worship of the foreigners in chapter 2 of Matthew is to culminate in chapter 28 of the Gospel – when the disciples saw him and worshipped him just as the Magi had done – and he sent them to ‘make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’.

But I am getting ahead of myself – for this is not Easter but the Feast of the Epiphany

What is Epiphany?  It means not arrival but appearance

This whole season of Christmas and Epiphany is called the ‘Manifestation’

When God makes himself known to man in the person of Jesus Christ

We will be studying Matthew’s account this year, but remember in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus first appears at the Jordan ready to be baptised by John for today is also the feast of the Baptism of Christ

We have further choices of ‘epiphany’ in the other Gospels

–        In Luke it is the birth of a poor child in a manger worshipped by lowly shepherds

–        While the high Christology of John sees Jesus as being one with God from the beginning of creation (John 1:1)

And so we can reasonably ask ourselves – where do we see Christ?

Personally – I had an epiphany standing here in the run up to Christmas

It makes me sound like Bill Nighy in ‘Love Actually’ – you know the bit at the end of the film when he turns up at his ‘chubby’ manager’s house because he realises that actually, that is the person whom he loves.

When I arrived here I struggled with this building – struggled to make it fit – struggled to find God in it

Then one day at a school’s service, I found myself saying the Aaronic blessing here at the crossing:

The lord bless you and keep you – the lord make his face to shine upon you (Nm 6:24-26)

I realised I could see the faces of Christ shining upon me in all directions

–        Mark’s miracle worker Christ healing the woman with haemorrhages in the window above the west door

–        Luke’s vulnerable infant in the Mother’s Union banner

–        Matthew’s Christ as king – risen, ascended glorified in the east window above the altar

–        And John’s Christ in the midst of creation in the Benedicite window

This brought it home to me that Christ was right here in this place all the time

Like Bill Nighy’s ephipany – love was right here, in front of us

‘It’s a terrible mistake but you turn out to be the love of my life’

Might that be our epiphany too – that actually it is here in this place that we are most ourselves, most at home, most loved?

And that set me wondering about these wise men – these gentiles, who ‘rejoiced with exceeding great joy’

Were these not us – the people here today

The mass of the shepherds and the angels – the thousand plus people who were here at Christmas – they have gone

And we – the wise or not so wise men – are left

And so what should we do – we who are left at the end of the Christmas party?

What is our response?  What gifts do we bring?

Surely we can learn from the Magi who reached inside their treasure chests to see what they could offer:

–        Gold – Gold is our stewardship – the gifts of money that we make to keep this church functioning – let’s give more and make it flourish!

–        Frankincense – is the basis of incense and represents our worship – let us worship like the wisemen – ‘rejoicing with exceeding great joy’

–        And Myrrh – myrrh is the gift which was not imagined in the old testament – it is both the ointment of healing and the bitter perfume of funeral preparations.

It calls to mind the healing of Christ’s ministry and his ultimate offering of himself

– it is our calling to heal the world, it is a reminder that it is only when we give ourselves up to Christ that we truly follow him

If we do all of these three things then we can go beyond being not so wise men and embody the star itself – being a light to bring others to Christ

And so I call upon you, the Magi of St Martin’s to ‘Arise and shine’ like the star in this year of 2017, arise and shine to the people of Epsom, arise and shine and witness to the Epiphany of Christ in this church of St Martin of Tours.  Amen

Sermon given by Revd Christopher Hancock at St Martin of Tours, Epsom
on the Feast of the Epiphany, 2017

Sermon for U2charist on New Year’s Day

2017-01-01-ch-photo

 

Sermon

 

May I speak In the name of the living and loving God whom we know as + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen

Well, what a pleasure it is to be here on New Year’s Day – which is also the Feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Christ

As we have just heard in our Gospel passage

“After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb”.

It seems appropriate that we celebrate this feast on New Year’s day.

For nothing is more new than things which don’t even have names yet.

Have you ever given a name to something new – a pet, a house, a baby

When you name something you in some way shape its future, determine how people will interrelate to it – even give it a destiny.

Joseph and Mary called him Jesus – in Hebrew Jeshua or Joshua – which means: God saves

What a destiny!

This is the same name as the Joshua who was a hero in the Old Testament

A great warrior – a warrior who held a spear

In fact, a certain desert plant – the Yucca Brevifolia – which looks like a man holding a spear – is commonly called the Joshua Tree – and gave its name to an album recorded by a certain Christian rock group, after seeing these trees on a tour of the USA.

A moment’s digression on U2.

Why their music?  How do they reflect a Christian message?

First, and importantly, they have licensed for free their music for liturgical use.

In fact, they began as a Christian group – our Vicar, Nick Parish, saw them at the Greenbelt Festival in 1979 where they were a supporting act for Cliff Richard (O tempora, o mores!)

Their lyrics include a strong theme of relationship – they have a longing for relationship at their heart

‘I have climbed the highest mountains I have run through fields Only to be with you’ |
(I
still haven’t found what I’m looking for)

‘I want to be with you night and day ‘ (New year’s day).

We’re one, but we’re not the same We get to Carry each other Carry each other’
(One)

Personally, I believe that there is a fundamental relationality between all things

When we recognise that and give it a name – that name is love.

But it’s something that needs to be worked on

As Bono put it:
‘One love, we get to share it., Leaves you baby, if you don’t care for it.’ (One)

 U2 literally take ‘Pride in the name of love.’

Not only in their lyrics but also in their lives – Bono has fronted charity efforts from Live Aid to the UN but beyond this U2 are a band which has been together since 1976 – that’s a 40 year relationship more than all but the longest marriages.

So back to Jesus – or Joshua – whose name means saviour

We may ask ourselves: What does it mean for us to call Jesus saviour?

Jesus seems a far cry from a man holding a spear

Through our nativity services and in our crib scene we have seen Christ as the vulnerable baby born into poverty, the infant lying in a humble manger

Today’s Feast of the Circumcision may even be seen to prefigure the crucifixion (we see Christ hanging on the cross above me here) the vulnerable child who was cut and bled as an 8 year old Jewish boy would ultimately be cut and bleed on a cross – executed as a criminal.

What is saving about that?

What is saving about God’s incarnate weakness?

Well Christianity is all about the story and the story does not end there

Each Massacre of the Holy Innocents by a violent and jealous king is followed by the visit of the wise men from the east (see me here next week to hear more about that)

Each Good Friday crucifixion is followed by an Easter Sunday resurrection

The love of self-sacrifice defeats the spear which was thrust into Jesus side.

The Christian story is that Jesus saves because love wins.

This seems very apt for our other celebration today in the world of New Year celebrations

For this is 2017

I have just returned from America where they are preparing to inaugurate President Trump

What does that portend?  For America, for the world?

New things – scary things!

For some the New year – the future itself is scary

Brexit

Retirement

Getting a job?  Keeping a job?

Fighting an illness

The future can be frightening

But the Christian message is not to be afraid – ‘be not afraid’ of things which are strange and new – but rather to embrace them

As the shepherds did rejoicing in the news

As Mary did – pondering these things in her heart

Because the New Year offers the opportunity for new starts.

‘Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old’ (Isaiah 42:18)

‘Behold I am making all things new’ (Rev 21:5)

As in our New Year’s resolutions…

At the beginning of each year we recognise we have a new start -all is brand new – like new shoes, new carpets, a new car – spotless

If only things would remain so

But they don’t

Shoes get scuffed, carpets get stained, cars get scratched (my car recently hit an invisible wall)

Gym memberships taken out in January get forgotten in February.

And so it will probably be with many of our new year’s resolutions

We fail in them – we give up – we fall back.

We may find ourselves holding again the stone which we have just let go.

But the loving message of Jesus our saviour is that does not matter

What matters is what we do next – do we give up or do we live in hope and try again.

In the words of the Baptism service – the candidates are asked ‘Do you turn to Christ?’

The response ‘I turn to Christ’ is not a one off but said in the present continuous –

I turn to Christ

I turn again

I start again

I keep on turning

Because such is the creative, renewing power of God, just as the sun rises at the end of every night, so we can start again each morning – whatever we have done the previous day

The loving God gives new life – light in the darkness

God saves us from ourselves

So I pray that whatever you have dropped into the ‘dustbin of sin’ tonight you remember that should you find yourself holding it again – Jesus says let it go again

Should you find yourself standing in the darkness – then look East to the resurrection and find the light of hope.

Should you find yourself standing alone – then know that whatever you are suffering – Jesus has suffered and is suffering with you.

And perhaps most importantly – if you find yourself wondering how to live your life – wondering what to do, what direction to take.  Remember to lo,ok to your relationships – to share your troubles and your joys with those whom you love and in particular those with whom we shall share this feast, this Eucharist of our Lord tonight.

‘One love, we get to share it., Leaves you baby, if you don’t care for it.’

Amen

Sermon given by Revd Christopher Hancock at St Martin of Tours, Epsom, on the Feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Christ, 1st January, 2017