Sermon: Centenary of Gallipoli – Evensong – 26th April 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 6pm

Readings: 2 Sam 22:2-20; Psalm 46; John 10:1-21

Beside tonight’s service on the preaching roster is a note saying “emphasis on Anzac Day”. As the day approached, I realised that on the centenary of the disastrous Gallipoli landing, there would not be a sermon preached in Australia that did not focus to some extent on this momentous and defining event. Indeed, to do otherwise would be to ignore the whole herd of elephants in the room. Australia was a nation only 14 years old at the outbreak of WWI and the new national government was keen to establish its reputation among the nations of the world. Our troops formed part of the allied expedition that set out to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula to open the way to the Black Sea for the allied navies.   It came about five weeks after the Turks had chased away the initial heavy attacking force, an armada of British and French ships off what is now Anzac Cove. The plan was to capture Constantinople the capital of the Ottoman Empire, and an ally of Germany.

It has been described by one commentator as tragically naïve and probably poorly conceived as a strategy. General Sir Peter Cosgrove has said publically that by any analysis, war is an extremely stupid way of doing things. History has shown us the ambiguity of causes once thought heroic. The matter becomes even more complex when after the event, we no longer sense that a particular war was heroic and we find veterans left hanging as it were, and finding little meaning in their involvement as has happened with a lot of our Vietnam veterans. We know that what the public was told was the war to end all wars, in fact sowed the seeds that grew and blossomed into the next war. It has been suggested that there can be a range of interpretations of the Anzac story and its application. Perhaps it is even still too soon to analyse accurately.

Troops training in Egypt, together with Australians at home, celebrated the first anniversary of Gallipoli in 1916. Rev’d Arthur Ernest White, a Church of England clergyman and padre, had sailed in November 1914 with troops from Albany. Before embarkation, he conducted a service at 4 in the morning for all the men of his battalion. On 25th April, 1923, as rector, he led a party of friends in a dawn parade at Albany. A man in a small dinghy cast a wreath into the King George Sound while White, with a band of about 20 men gathered around him on the summit of Mount Clarence, watched the wreath float out to sea and quietly recited the words “As the sun rises and goeth down, we will remember them.”.   Word spread about this deeply moving ceremony and various returned service communities Australia-wide began to emulate it.

This weekend, there will have been widespread questioning of what we have learnt since the disaster of 25th April, 1915, if anything much and just what we are commemorating. While there will have been focus on Australia and Australians, we need to remember too all those brought into the conflict whose lives were impacted. It is interesting to note that the students of St Spirydon’s (Greek Orthodox) College in Sydney have not only visited Gallipoli, but more recently have forged links electronically with students from a high school on the Greek Island of Lemnos, where Australians spent some time early in 1915 practising beach landings and generally preparing for the attack on Gallipoli. After the initial attack, many men who were gravely injured were evacuated to Lemnos for hospital care and sadly, 148 Australians are buried in the cemeteries there at Moudros Bay. These Greek youngsters reflect with pride on the hospitality and refuge extended by their forebears to the Anzacs, some at the cost of their own lives.

This weekend there will have been much mention made of the Australian character: heroism, selflessness, loyalty, patriotism, comradeship and the like. There will have been mention too of the horror of war, its futility and the hopeless position those original Anzacs found themselves in. Under the extreme pressure and in the totally unfamiliar circumstances, there will have been some exceptional behaviour elicited too, both heroic and cowardly. Let me move further now into the human dimension of that terrible time of battle at Anzac Cove. Many of you will know Albert Facey’s quite extraordinary book, “A Fortunate Life”. As a 20 year old, Bert went to Gallipoli. The picture he paints of the journey to the front is not one to inspire confidence in the military! On disembarkation, his group had to march five miles from Cairo to their base, but the many who had got drunk had to be transported on donkey lorries. There was no one in charge and no provision for food. Their sargeant had been given an order for supplies but had got drunk, lost the order and disappeared, meaning it was some three days before the group’s plight became known and some command and food were organised.

On transfer to Gallipoli, the young Bert had to be shaken awake to land. From the troopship, the men shinned down a rope net onto the deck of a destroyer which took them in closer to shore. They were then met by a motor boat, towing them in small rowing boats with sailors to row them the final stage to the beach itself. They were told to get ashore as best they could and then to line up on the beach and to await further instructions. Bert says the men were keyed up, expecting to tear right through the Turks and keep going to Constantinople which nowadays is about a 5 hour coach trip away. It had been a bold plan to knock Turkey out of the war quickly, but as we know, it turned into an eight month stalemate with appalling losses of life on both sides. But back at the shore, heavy shelling and shrapnel fired into the rowing boats even before they landed on Turkish soil, killed many of the men. 30 metres from the beach, they had to get out into the shoulder deep water and wade as best they could towards the shore, with machine guns sweeping the strip of landing beach. Bodies were all around as the men landed and the injured were screaming for help. Bert reports having to run for their lives, over the strip of beach and into the scrub and bush, stumbling blind over the fallen and the falling. Some Turkish soldiers, dressed in green and standing still and silent among the large bushes, easily picked the arriving Australians off, sniping from above and behind. Bert says simply “I am sure there wouldn’t have been one of us left if we had obeyed that damn fool order to line up on the beach.”. About eight days later, they moved to trench warfare and contended apart from the fighting, with the lice that crawled in profusion all over their bodies and the hunger, barely satisfied by the salted meat and rock hard biscuits that were their only supplies. At the brief armistice on 24th May called to allow both sides to bury their dead, Bert says that there were a few hours of uncharacteristic quiet, apart from the sound of shovels and the padres reading the burial service, while men amazingly exchanged greetings and cigarettes with their enemies. Some days later, a British commander asked about the stench near the trenches and was told that it was from the rotting bodies that could not be buried because of incessant gun fire. Bert was appalled when the officer instructed them to go ahead and retrieve and bury the bodies, saying “What is the loss of a few men?”.

Injured by shrapnel, Bert lost 4 teeth, had others loosened and had the shrapnel cut out from where it was embedded in his jaw and the roof of his mouth. He was back at the front line in two weeks.   His brother Roy was killed by a shell that exploded and blew him up. Bert helped put him back together as best they could to bury him and he reports having carried one of Roy’s legs. Another brother was bayonetted 7 times when his mate abandoned him, when they were on duty at a guard post. A second time, Bert was injured, shot in the shoulder and being pinned under sandbags that were blasted onto him, resulting in internal bleeding, a ruptured spleen and a crushed leg, all of which continued to affect his daily life and health on his evacuation after four months of hell on earth and his return to Australia.

How do we now as a nation conceptualise the Anzac event and tradition, and how do we as individuals respond to them? What have we learnt? What should we learn to take forward?

One of the important things is probably to disentangle the identification of military deaths, which certainly can be seen as sacrifice, from the sacrifice of Christ. The most common Bible verse, or rather, part of a Bible verse, on Australian war memorials is “Greater love hath no man than this …” and we are left to fill in the end of this verse. An interesting insight as to how Australians have immortalised Anzac is given by theologian Ben Myers, who sometimes worships with us here at St Alban’s. He says: “The theological mythology of Anzac Day is especially vivid if you look at some of the country’s war memorials. Sydney’s Anzac War Memorial is designed like an ancient Greek temple. Inside it features Rayner Hoff’s stunning 1934 bronze sculpture, Sacrifice, which depicts the body of a soldier held aloft on the altar of his shield, his arms draped across a sword in a posture of crucifixion, while the whole form rises like a phoenix from the flames below. It is a majestic image, a portrayal of worship, devotion and sacrifice. It’s hard to imagine a more vivid representation of the cult of war that lies at the heart of the modern nation-state. Interestingly though, Hoff made two other bronze sculptures for the memorial, but only Sacrifice was included. One of the other sculptures, the crucifixion of Civilisation, would have challenged this central image- and it might have challenged the romanticism of war that has become so prevalent in Australia today. In this sculpture, the form of a young naked woman (symbolising Peace) is crucified atop a pile of corpses, limbs, weapons and other wreckages of war. She is crucified on the weapons of Mars, the Roman god of war. The huge helmet of Mars gapes over her like some monstrous ravening mouth. From a distance, the whole hideous scene forms a traditional symbol of victory. Hoff himself described the sculpture like this: “Adolescent Peace is depicted crucified on the armaments of the ravisher, the war god, Mars.   The Greek helmet like an animal, gapes over the head of expiring Peace, the body armour hard and brutal in contrast to her lithe woman’s body”. Ben goes on to say “It’s a shame this piece is absent from the Anzac War Memorial. It’s surely worth asking to whom these devotions are offered year after year – the father of Jesus or an insatiable pagan god of war”. It makes me wonder too if we have ever got beyond Peace being just an adolescent in our thinking and living. We need to look for a deeper peace, a real peace that is positive for all, rather than a protection of the space in which some powers pursue their interests. The notion of some sort of blood sacrifice being a necessary rite of passage in the birth of a nation was apparently common in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods and some felt that in the daunting task of storming the Gallipoli Peninsula, the Anzacs created an event which would help shape the new Australia.

Most often in these Anzac Day services, there has not been a clear underpinning theology. Rather, as William Loader puts it, it was more just the cry, the naïve and childlike cry to God from people in pain as they remembered. He sees pain in the community at large and pain in the community of war veterans, whose wounds of war have not healed who need story-telling and ritual because it cannot all be dealt with by reason. He further believes that the social change in our community over recent years that has unlocked male emotions has allowed them to find expression. Earlier I quoted Ben Myers where he insists we disentangle military deaths from the sacrifice of Christ. Yesterday at the Dawn Service in Sydney, the governor said we need to “maintain the relevance of the Anzac legend and build on it for the future”. How do we, as people of faith, interpret the Anzac legend and connect it to our faith? How do we as people of faith connect with those in our community who place almost a religious emphasis on the sacrifice of our soldiers, but perhaps on little else?

One sermon I read called “Honouring the Fallen”, points out that while we are followers of one who was slain, we are not followers of one who took up arms to fight the enemy. Jesus called on his followers to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. When his enemies came against him with military force, he did not resort to violence to defend himself or his cause. Offering himself as the Prince of Peace, rather than as the Holy Warrior, he allowed the machinery of might and power to add him to its list of sacrificial victims. Jesus gave us no endorsement and no precedent for taking up arms and his teachings point overwhelmingly towards an active renunciation of waging war. How then, do we honour the fallen while being consistent with the gospel teaching? We need to do it in a way that resists the manipulation of the commemoration into a support for a system that supports killing.

As the Anzac events recede further into the mists of time we are bound to lose our connection to the historical reality, but we can develop a connection with a deeper abiding reality. The passion of Christ that we have so recently celebrated becomes an invitation to solidarity with all who are violated or who suffer and an opportunity for redemption and renewed life.

Our John 10 reading tonight first has Jesus implying to his friends, who do not understand, that he is the shepherd who leads them. He first says “I am the gate for the sheep.”, the one who protects them and who has come to give them life and to ensure it is not taken from them. He then spells out that he is the good shepherd who is prepared to lay down his life for the sheep. He says “No-one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”. William Loader says that soldiers’ deaths might come from hatred and aggression towards a perceived enemy, from a naïve analysis of good and bad, from a blind submission to authorities, whereas Jesus’ sacrifice comes from the violation of one who refused hatred and lived and died love. Is this a point where we can facilitate bringing into dialogue Christ’s death and the Gallipoli story? Informed by the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Gallipoli story must not become for us a celebration of war or of solidarity in adolescent behaviour as the unfruitful response to the stress of loneliness and fear. We can honour the fallen and acknowledge their sacrifice without approving or supporting the system that sacrificed them.   It is easy to unthinkingly allow our honouring of the fallen morph into a worshipping of the victims of war and as the victims become inseparably linked to symbols such as the flag, democracy and our borders and freedom, our worship can then morph further into an endorsement of the need to defend such things with violent military force.

As we strive for a deeper, abiding Anzac reality, we in the church need to take that opportunity to be present where many people are, when the community celebrates Anzac Day. Loader says that the early church “learnt to baptise the myths of its age”, that is, the stories to live by, learnt to embrace and incorporate them, as for example has happened with Harvest Festival. How do we go forward, connecting with our community, paying proper respect and gratitude but not glorifying war? We need to honour the fallen by allowing their memory to raise urgent questions about the powers that sacrificed them and the kind of national leadership we need today. Do we press our secular leaders to follow the lead of Jesus, themselves striving to be the door of our sheepfold, and as the shepherds of us, their sheep? Do we press them to show a servant leadership towards us and in their decision making on our behalf?

Perhaps as we begin by joining in the confession of solidarity with the community “We will remember them”, we will treat it as a matter of pressing responsibility to bring Jesus’ sacrifice to bear on all aspects of our life as individuals. Then in our community and civic life, we can seek to honour the fallen in the long term by ensuring that we weave into the fabric of our society, values that are expressed in seeking the common good, in integrity of personal and public life and a deep commitment to peace. This can be how we remember and honour them best.

Dr Ruth Shatford

 

Sermon: Anzac Day Service – 26th April 2015

St Aidan’s Anglican Church, West Epping  8.30am

Readings:   Acts 4:5-12;  Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24;  John 10:11-18

Just before dawn, one hundred years and one day ago, the first of the Anzac forces rowed ashore to begin the Gallipoli campaign, about which we have heard so much over recent days. Many of them never even made it to shore alive, and over the following eight months more than 8700 Australian troops lost their lives at Gallipoli. A terrible cost. And as our Prime Minister has observed, it really ended in defeat with the withdrawal that took place just before Christmas 1915, after months of stalemate.

Of course, many of the survivors of Gallipoli then found themselves serving on the Western Front, perhaps an even more hellish experience, with a huge cost in human lives. However, it was there that our forces played a significant role in achieving victory for Britain, its allies, and its empire.

It is only in recent years that we as a nation have begun again to pay significant attention to the service and sacrifice of our soldiers on the Western Front, as our active interest in Gallipoli revived towards the end of last century. Sarah and I, like many Australians, have had the opportunity to visit the battlefields both of Gallipoli and the Western Front, and it was a powerful experience for us both.

It is often said that Gallipoli almost established us or defined us as a nation; that it was here that we came of age as a young nation; that it was only through the experience and service, the struggles and the suffering of the Great War, that we came together as a nation, and showed the world who we really are.

It seems ironic that our attention to the Gallipoli campaign focuses on what was such a costly defeat. My understanding is that the defeat was linked much more to poor decisions from higher up that any failure from the ordinary troops themselves: others better qualified than I can assess the truth of that impression. But it does seem that the colonials from the antipodes did their job with great skill, determination and camaraderie: they gave their best to the task assigned to them, at huge cost, and they acquitted themselves with great honour.

Yes, there was a larrikin side to their outlook: British traditions were not going to become a straightjacket to them, and they weren’t going to be bogged down by unnecessary formalities.

We honour them as ordinary Australians who left their homes to serve their country and their empire – ordinary people, so many of whom gave their lives in an unknown land on the other side of the world.

Was it worth it? Well, eventually in another place the victory was won – but at terrible cost. And surely we are reminded that war must always be seen as the very last option of a responsible government. War should never be rushed into: it should never be easily entered. It is always evil, even if it may sometimes be seen as a necessary evil. It is not glorious. In our best moments we will commemorate it, but not celebrate it. Hopefully we will learn from it. And yes, we must remember and continue to commemorate those who served, those who gave their lives, and also to remember those who lost loved ones, or who lost the loved one they had known when a very different, sadly changed person returned from the war. We must never take these people and their sacrifice for granted.

Yes, our country did gain a sense of identity from its involvement in the Great War, and in a special way from Gallipoli, failure though it was. And in that sense we might say that even the sacrifice of Gallipoli was not totally wasted.

And it seems appropriate that sacrificial death is a significant theme of our scripture readings for today.

In our reading from Acts, we hear Peter telling the Sanhedrin that Jesus had been crucified, but God had raised him from death. He was like the strange-looking stone rejected by the builders, but which turned out to be the very one which enabled the whole building to finally fit together. The events of Good Friday seemed a terrible defeat for Jesus and his followers, but that defeat was turned into victory by the Easter events. And of course the sacrificial death of Jesus led to healing and salvation for many.

Mind you, this was a risky thing for Peter to say. He could have soft-pedalled his message. He could even have denied Jesus once again. But Jesus had not only forgiven him: Jesus had commissioned him to lead his apostles as they made known the message of the crucified and risen Saviour. So Peter was willing to risk imprisonment and even to risk his life to give due honour to Jesus and to the message of the Gospel. Jesus loved him enough to die for him: Peter must faithfully live as his servant, whatever the costrather – even rejection, imprisonment, death itself.

And we have our Gospel reading, with its beautiful words in which Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd: the one who is no thief and does no harm to the sheep – the one who is not just a hired hand who runs away from danger, but will face it faithfully – he is the one who is willing to lay down his life for the sheep.

And of course that is exactly what Jesus the good shepherd did. He sacrificed his life on the cross to save his sheep, his people, from spiritual death, from the power of the evil one.

And then we have words from the First Letter of John: words about love. Jesus showed his love by laying down his life for us. A statement that echoes those famous words of Jesus, often read at this time of year: “greater love has no one than this: that a person lays down his life for those he loves”. Jesus loved: Jesus laid down his life.

But let’s notice the conclusion John draws from this. “We ought to lay down our lives for one another”, he says. Faith means following in the footsteps of Jesus. And so John goes on to say that love means helping a person in need in whatever way you can: providing whatever you have that will meet their need. Practical help: we’ve seen a good deal of that this week, as neighbours have helped each other, as volunteers have gone to storm-ravaged areas to assist with their time, their skills and their effort. As John says, love is not just about the nice words you say: it is about our loving actions, our generous deeds. Love is generous. Love is active. But love is also sacrificial.

And so this week, we remember those who have shown love to their country and their comrades in serving and suffering and dying in battle. We give thanks for them and acknowledge what they have done. And we take seriously the challenge to follow their example of generous sacrificial love for the good our others, the good of our community, the good of our nation, and the good of our world.

But this day we also remember one other who gave his life for those in spiritual need – and that is all of us. It looked like a terrible defeat: but God has the habit of bringing good out of evil. And so it was that God raised Jesus from death itself, and brought life not only to Jesus, but new life to the world.

We remember Jesus as we gather around his table to give thanks in the Eucharist. But we also honour him by following in his footsteps, and responding to his challenge, that challenge echoed in the words of John: to love one another and to show love to others, not only in words but in deeds of active love. Amen.

Reverend Paul Weaver

 

 

 

Sermon: The Third Sunday of Easter (B) – 19th April 2015

St Aidan’s Anglican Church, West Epping  8.30am

Readings:   Acts 3:12-20; Psalm 4; 1 John 2:15-17 & 3:1-6; Luke 24:36-48

“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.” Some of the best-known and best-loved words of the Bible: words which really sum up the whole Christian message. They come from the Gospel of John, written by the same person as the writer of 1 John, part of which we read this morning.

And yet, what were the first words of todays reading from that letter? “Do not love the world.” How strange! If God loves the world, should not we love the world? How do these apparent contradictions fit together?

It all depends! It all depends on what you mean by “the world”, and what you mean by “love”.

When we think of the world, we might think of creation, or our particular part of creation, planet earth. This is God’s creation, and God values this world and wants us to care for it. Yes, we use its resources, but we are to use them responsibly, according to his purposes: at the moment, it seems to me that short term economic gains seem to be getting priority over responsible care for this world, and the needs of future generations who will also have their place in the world are often being sidelined.

But I don’t think that is what John is talking about here. When we hear those words “God so loved the world…” we know that it is not the planet itself that is referred to. It is the people who live on this planet: people made in the image of God, people valued by God, people beloved of God – despite our sins and failings. God loves people. God loves us!

And so it follows that Jesus tells us to love others: to love one another, to love our Christian brothers and sisters, to love our parents and children and families, to love our neighbour – who can be anyone, even to love our enemy. Loving people is part of following Jesus.

But just as we know that many words have different meanings or different shades of meaning, so it is with some words in the Bible. Hence “the world” can refer to the people of the world, beloved by God: but it can also have a rather different meaning.

The world can also be seen as the system of human activity which is opposed to God and to his purposes. Ultimately it is humanity under the control of Satan, rejecting God’s purposes for us and the world. You might remember that Jesus described Satan as the ruler of this world. This is the world, the distorted world if you like, that John refers to in our passage.

So we have a different connotation for the word “world”.

But we also need to think about the word “to love”. When Jesus tells us to love our neighbour, he is calling us to genuine concern for the well-being of others, a readiness to act for their good, a willingness to help them when they are in need, to act sacrificially in their interests if that is required.

That is of course how God loved the world according to John 3:16. But we recognize different shades of meaning in the way people use the word “love” today: people can love their family, they can love going on holidays, they can make love, they can love pizza, they may love their country, they may love their partner in life.

And when John tells us not to love the world, we need to see his shade of meaning. To love the world, as John refers to it here, is not about acting in the best interests of its people: it is to get caught up in its desires and priorities and attractions. The world encourages us to get more and more money and possessions and comfort; to look after Number 1; to seek more and more pleasures and new experiences; to get ahead of other people. The world says it is OK to use people rather than truly love others. The world says that it is normal to hate and to exclude those who aren’t our kind of people, or may even be a threat to our comfort.

What the world offers seems attractive, but it can be like a drug that sucks us in and destroys us. To love the world is to get caught up in the priorities and desires that belong to this world, so that they become too important. To love things instead of people. To love the things that this world offers instead of loving God. The world encourages us to put God second or third or last, and ultimately it stifles real spiritual life out of us.

We are not to love the world this way. We are not to place so much value on the things that this world offers that they get in the way of God. In a sense, Paul says much the same thing when he says that covetousness, literally the desire for more and more, is idolatry. It places something other than God in first place instead of God.

Yes, there is much that is attractive and enjoyable, and fine in itself, in this world – things we might well enjoy and appreciate – but they can become too important; they can take first place over God and his ways and his purposes for us.

John warns us against “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches”. It is not unlike the story of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis. The serpent showed Eve the tree whose fruit was good for food; it was a delight to the eyes; and it was to be desired to make one wise. It would feel good; it looked good; and it appealed to her pride.

And so Eve and Adam were sucked into what became the ways of the world. But as John points out, the world and its priorities are passing away: any pleasure and advantage is temporary. Ultimately the things that this world offers will not last. They will have no value in God’s kingdom. So we might appreciate many things in this world, but we need to keep a true perspective: appreciating what is good, but not being dominated by these things, and being able to let them go when that is required.

After all, what really matters is loving God, loving people, following Jesus and living his way. As John says, we are God’s children: not just made by him, not even just made in his image: but related to our heavenly Father is a unique way. We are called to live as God’s children: reflecting something of the goodness and love of our heavenly Father.

Of course we will fall short. And John seems to set us an impossibly high standard. “No one who abide in him sins”, he writes. “No one who sins has either seen him or known him.” No sin! Perfection? How can we possibly have any hope if perfection is the standard?

But we can miss John’s point. John is not talking about our falls and failures. He is talking about our way of life, our direction in life. The person he is describing here, grammatically speaking, is the one who keeps on sinning, the one who sees sinning as the normal way to live. If we abide in Jesus, sin will not be the direction of our life, sin will not be the defining characteristic of our life. Yes, we shall continue to fall short, we shall still commit sin, but we shall keep going basically along the path of obedience as followers of Christ, even with our slips and mistakes. Remember that as Christians, we take sin seriously: we seek to live God’s way. But we don’t get obsessed by sin, because Christ has died to bring us forgiveness and assurance.

Our knowledge of God and our knowledge of Jesus is incomplete. We have not yet arrived. But we are on the path, as followers of Christ.

So here we are, God’s children living in this world with its traps and temptations. And yes, perhaps some of the temptations that were once significant don’t seem so important to us in our current stage of life! But there is still the temptation to put things ahead of people, to put comfort and security ahead of trusting God, to take the safe and easy way when we could reach out to others.

Let’s keep seeking to love God, to love others, to follow Jesus, and live God’s way: let’s keep going along that path to the kingdom to which we belong. And let’s do it with trust and confidence in God’s purposes, his forgiveness and his faithfulness. After all, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” Amen.

Reverend Paul Weaver

Sermon: The Second Sunday of Easter (B) – 12th April 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am and 10am

Readings:   Acts 4:32-37; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

As we read the gospel stories of Jesus’ resurrection there seems to be little place for the celebration of what Jesus had achieved. That sense of achievement is spelt out in detail further on in the New Testament when we get to the letters, the epistles. But in the gospels there is more of an emphasis upon the confusion that Jesus’ resurrection caused amongst his disciples, rather than teasing out in any detail the consequences of the resurrection.

So in John’s gospel the discussion is around did the resurrection happen or didn’t it? And so we have the story of Thomas who was absent at Jesus first appearance in the upper room and as a result, Thomas has the distinction of being the first Christian sceptic and labelled with the title “The Doubter”. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” You can’t getclearer than that.And I bet he never thoughtwhat would happen one week later. Jesus did appear to him and brought the challenge to him, “Do not doubt but believe.”

But why does Johntell us this story?His intention is to provoke belief in us who weren’t able to attend any upper room meetings. But as well, John gives us a very brief insight both into the thinking of the disciples, who seemed to have absolutely no expectation of a resurrection, and the significance of the resurrection itself. Here John is juggling two question regarding the resurrection. Did it happen and does it matter? Through Thomas John is trying to convince us that “Yes”, it did happen. But then we come to the even more important second question “Does it matter?”

And a clue to the answer to that question is given several times throughout this passage. When Jesus first entered the room he said “Peace”. The disciples looked shocked which is no wonder,nand so he repeated the word. One week later, when Thomas was with them Jesus appeared again and again he said “Peace”. Now it would be a mistake to think that this was Jesus way of saying “Hello!” For the Jews “Peace” meant much more than that. Peace didn’t just mean the absence of conflict. Peace was a description of the ideal state. When you wished someone peace you were wishing them health, prosperity, security, friendship and perhaps salvation. In short, it was a way of wishing all the blessings of life upon someone. What is more the Jewish hope for the future was summarised by that one word. What does the future hold? Let it be peace. And so when they thought about their coming messiah it is not surprising that they called him the Prince of Peace.

And its no wonder that after all Jesus had achieved at the cross, having died and now having been raised in his resurrection glory, when he appeared before all his disciples in this upper room his first word was “Peace.” It can be compared to his declaration on the cross “It is finished”. That is, all is accomplished. And so now as he appears before his disciples he is not so much wishing them peace but granting them peace. It is a declaration. It is a victory call. “I’ve done it.” All you’ve hoped for, your hearts desire, I’ve done it. I grant you peace. Everything had been leading up to this one moment and he entered that upper room with this message of good news for all the disciples. No doubt, at this stagethey didn’t understand it yet. But in just a few days for this group of followers,the whole world had changed. Everything was different. They just couldn’t see it yet. But it slowly dawned upon them and you can see a good example of that from our Acts reading.

We are told there that Barnabus had sold a field and brought the money to the disciples. And its easy to miss the significance of that act. The Jews understood that the land was God’s gift and God’s blessing to them. It would be hard to understand God’s blessing without possession of the land. In Jeremiah’s day, as the people were sent into exile in Babylon, before he left, Jeremiah bought a field. This was a sign that God had not forgotten them. That blessing would come to them again one day. One day they would return to their land. Jeremiah one day would claim possession of his field. In other words, no matter what happened,Israel would not be alienatedfrom God and all his blessings to them. All the promises of God were still theirs, even if their fulfillment now lay in the future.

But with the coming of Jesus, all God’s blessing are now achieved through him. He made the Temple obsolete. Now access to God was directly through him. And in this act of selling a field Barnabus is giving up his attachment to the land. It is no longer necessary. The land no longer acts as the guarantee of the promise. This is not just a generous act. It has theological implications. Now Barnbus knows that blessing comes from Jesus alone, the one who grants us peace.

So do our lives reflect this peace we have received? Do we live out this peace? Do we put this peace into action with those who hate us, those who are poor, those who are sick those who are outcasts? Do they know peace because of our lives? As we have been given the blessing of this peace do we bring peace to others? Are we ambassadors of this peace? Perhaps it helps if we meditate upon what we have been given, to enjoy the blessing of God’s peace, to understand that it describes our future hope, and as our lives are transformed by the blessing of this peace, we may become a blessing to those around us who will see that peace in our lives.

And now may the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Reverend Ross Weaver

Sermon: Easter Day – 5th April 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 10am

Readings:   Acts 10:34-43;  Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11;  John 20.1–18

Easter is a lovely holiday. Its been months since the celebrations of Christmas. The last of Summer weather still lingers on, not quite as warm, but still not carrying  the sting of winter chills. But a lovely time to rest, and snuggle in bed and sleep. And no doubt, that is what Sydney is doing at this very moment. All the roads are empty. People are in their beds. They certainly are not with usin Church at this hour of the morning. Rather, most of Sydney sees this as a time for sleep. And that is exactly what most of Sydney is doing. Its holiday time. Saturday night was for revelry.  Sunday is for sleeping it off.  Yet while Sydney sleeps the fact is, the Son of God has risen from the dead and yet no one seems to notice. Of all days, this is not a time to be sleeping.

That’s what John is telling us in the way he tells his breathless story of Easter morning. ‘On the first day of the week, very early, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb, and found the stone rolled away.’ Something has already happened, and we weren’t ready for it. We weren’t expecting it. Dead people stay dead. Dead Messiahs stay dead. Everybody knows that. Yes, we believe they will rise again on the last day, but not in the middle of history, not in the middle of the night, not in the confusion not in the muddle of our twisted and fragmented and puzzling and grieving lives . . .

So Mary ran and told Peter and the young man John, and they ran too – the only time in the Bible, I think, when three people all run in the same story – and they come to the tomb, puffing and blowing but with their hearts pounding because they have no idea whether this news is good or bad or just totally bizarre. They don’t have a game plan for this. If you come to Jerusalem following a Messiah and he gets caught and killed, your best plan is to hide for a few days and then sneak out of town while you still can before the authorities come after you as well. You don’t want to be running around inspecting tombs in the half-light of early dawn on the first day of the week, the beginning of the working week, when people would soon be up and about their business after the Sabbath. But Peter and John come running, and Mary follows close behind.

The point is this: the resurrection of Jesus was totally unexpected, and remains, in our world today, totally unexpected. Resurrection is a shock, it’s an insult to our sophisticated understanding of our world. It was a shock to the disciples too. Even they grasped the accepted truth that dead people stay dead.

Al Gore wrote about the Inconvenient Truth of global warming, but we can be sure the resurrection of Jesus is a much more inconvenient truth, slicing through our normal assumptions and telling us that the day has already dawned -when all our instincts want to say, “No it hasn’t, go back to sleep.”

But Easter is supposed to be a surprise, it’s supposed to get us up too early and running about when other people are still asleep. That is the foundation of the church, of the Christian faith, of the Christian life and hope and love and laughter and witness. It isn’t supposed to be the sort of claim that people can look at and say, “Well, I suppose that might be true; a little unlikely perhaps but still quite possible; maybe I’ll consider it.” Anyone who said that hasn’t got the point. Easter is not just unlikely, it’s impossible,but it happened. Easter isn’t just difficult to believe, it is unbelievable, Easter is impossible because it doesn’t fit any reasonable explanation. To believe in the Easter gospel you must have your mind and your heart torn open in a new way so that the new day can come flooding in despite the fact that you thought it was time to go to bed, and so that you can set off running to see what it’s all about. There’s no time to lose. Easter is about running when you thought you’d still be sleeping. It’s about believing what you thought you’d never imagine. It’s about living in a way you’d never have dreamed possible. It’s about Jesus returning from the dead and launching the new creation in which all is forgiven, all is remade, all is reborn.

That’s why this is such a great time for baptism, as the early church knew well. Baptism is about sharing the journey of Jesus, down into the deep waters of death and up the other side into new life. It’s about setting your watches to a different time, to Easter time, the time that says the new day is dawning even when the rest of the world thinks it’s still night-time. It’s about setting off at a run to see what it’s all about when moments before you were still asleep.

There are three ways in particular in which this startling new day should jolt us into a different way of living.

First, the whole point of Easter is that God the creator has dealt with everything that messes up his wonderful world, and has set in motion his plan to sort it all out, to put it all right, to remake it so that it is filled with his glory. And we who hear this news, even though it doesn’t make much sense to the world around, are called to be the advance runners for this project. From one point of view this means working for justice – to put things right, to remind our rulers and authorities that that’s their job and to hold them to it, to be alert for the places where injustice is done and speak up about it, whether it’s a rural community losing its only doctor or medical clinic, an asylum seeker being bullied by Immigration, a company forcing people into redundancy to maximize returns to the shareholders, or to fund big payments to their top executives, or whatever. From another point of view it means working to heal and renew our wonderful planet, making it fruitful and abundant and preventing it from being poisoned or degraded. Easter is about God’s new creation and we are called, to be agents of that new creation here and now.

Second, to be agents of this new creation we ourselves must become, people of new creation. And that means holiness, which means rediscovering what a full and genuine human life was always meant to be like. Our world has lived on so many lies and half-truths about what it means to be human, whether it’s the worship of celebrities, the lies of some talk-back radio shows, the manipulation of the truth in so-called current affairs programmes, the idolisation of sport, the obsession with sex or beauty, or just the slow deterioration of human relationships and community. The challenge to personal holiness always comes as a shock, like someone waking you up at midnight and insisting that you’ve got to come running to see the new dawn. We are called to be Easter people, resurrection people, leaving behind in the grave all that spoils and downgrades our human calling.

Third, to be people of new creation, people of justice and beauty, we must be people of worship. We have heard the great story which carries us forward as God’s people, the story of God’s mighty acts from creation to new creation. That story is the heart of our worship, and as we find ourselves caught up in it again we turn it into prayer and praise and Eucharist. Christian worship, and the liturgy which makes sure we are really paying attention to the whole counsel of God, shapes us as communities, and shapes our personal characters, so that we really are worshipping the living God made known in the resurrection of his Son,and so that our habits of life, corporate and personal, may bit by bit be brought into line with the new day that has dawned.

So we’ve got plenty to do, plenty of running to and fro in the excitement of the Easter morning. But at the heart of it all there is the still centre, the moment of wonder and awe, the moment when Peter and John come into the tomb and discover not only that the body of Jesus has disappeared but that the grave-cloths have been carefully put aside, indicating that the body has not merely been resuscitated but it’s been transformed. It’s that transforming power

of the new day that we invoke today, this most holy day, as we seek in love and gratitude to become truly Easter people, the people of the daytime for a world still in darkness, the people of Jesus for the world he loved so much that he gave his life. Let us then celebrate God’s victory over death itself, and commit ourselves once more to follow him into the new day.

Reverend Ross Weaver

Sermon: Easter Day – 5th April 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 8.00 am

Dostoevsky, the great Russian novelist, in his novel Crime and Punishment, tells the story of Raskolnikov: intelligent, but emotionally stunted, a distant and cold observer of life, capable of achieving, incapable of loving. As a needy student he comes to the conclusion that the wealth of a miserly old woman would be better in his hands than hers: so following this logic he brutally and cold-bloodedly kills her. This act proves surprisingly unsettling to him: as does his arrest, conviction, and imprisonment in Siberia. But still he remains detached, unmoved. Among his friends is a girl, Sonia, who moves to Siberia to be close to him, visiting him for an hour each day when the prisoners took their exercise near the fence. But he remains indifferent, indifferent to her love and devotion, indifferent to her small gifts. One day Sonia fell ill, and is unable to visit. He loiters at the fence as usual, but is scarcely affected by her absence. In time she recovers and sends word that she will be at the fence to meet him. The hour comes for her to be there: and he is there, but with little feeling. And then, in an extraordinarily vivid moment, he realizes that he is not loitering but waiting, waiting to see if she would come or not come. It is in this moment of waiting that he realizes he loves her: this man who has never loved before discovers in the awareness of waiting the awareness of loving. The collapse of his former indifference appears even to him, not as a tragedy, but as a triumph: the glory of his new-found dependence and helplessness of being in love.

Over these days we have witnessed the collapse of the disciples’ hopes, the collapse of their story in the face of broken bread, Gethsamane and its awful consequence. We have seen Jesus throughout living and offering an alternative story: we have seen that new way of being and living is the occasion for denial, betrayal and desertion. And all through this collapse of a meaningful story, the disintegration of the little community we have witnessed a fidelity and integrity in Jesus’ resolve- to stay true to his prophetic challenge to find a new inclusive, outward looking Israel- and not to take the easy way out by offering a self-interested , inward-looking spirituality, not to offer a way of compromise or negotiation, and not to enter the futile response to repay violence with violence.

“But we had hoped….” is the particular cry of those two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and it is as if they are putting words into our mouths, telling our precise story: our story that is so caught up with rivalry and fear and competition: our story that hangs on to the way things are, or should be; that chooses to have a God made in our image, rather than the other way around. Like them, we too are bewildered and disappointed. So many of the projects of life that we put our energies into fail us, and a stranger walks with us, as he did with them, and simply asks: What? What things are you carrying, living with?” Just as we saw that attention must be paid to this man, especially as he moves from action to passion, so we are asked to pay attention to what is going on for us: for paying attention is not an end in itself, but carries within it its own potential for creativity and transformation. In any genuine effort of paying attention nothing is ever wasted.

The Gospels do not offer us doctrinal statements, creeds to assent to, but stories, stories to shake, encourage and challenge us, stories for us to begin to inhabit and live from the inside, stories that ground us in what is, and not in what should be, stories that touch our vulnerable places and which speak directly into our lives, not in the sense so much that we can say “I believe’ but “I am”., telling us not only who we are but who we can become.

So Mary Magdalene, weeps outside the tomb, mistaking Jesus, the Risen One, for the gardener. Each of the stories of the resurrection suggest how hard it is to recognize him, helping us in our own difficulties. The point of all this is of course not that he looked differently, but that they had never really seen who he was. They had never grasped how his whole person and identity was wrapped up in his relationship with the one he called Abba, wrapped up in his all-consuming vocation to offer Israel-and beyond- a new way of being human.

And so the gardener, the one she had loved and now grieved, called her by name, her “early morning name”: no less than Raskolnikov, she not only found Jesus, risen, but herself-in love, and alive. And he immediately says those now famous words: “Do not hold onto me”…Do not cling to the old story: let go, don’t try and possess me, don’t try and pin me down, but enter into the new story where I will beckon you into deeper and wider horizons of surprise and mystery. This new story is not something I grasp so much as a story that now carries me.

And to those disciples in the Upper Room: where the walls and locked doors speak of fear and defense and clinging- the old story writ large, the story that refuses to think outside the square, that builds walls to isolate and shore up a sense of identity-just as Israel had been doing and bore the brunt of Jesus’ challenge and critique: it is into these walls that possibility strikes, a ”small shy truth” emerges, the breath of the Spirit announces itself, and where walls, in a famous image, become a window: a window to see out, to see beyond.

And Thomas, who loved, in his own way, Jesus, could not possibly bear a wounded Jesus, because he could not bear to face and embrace his own wounds and woundedness: in an extraordinary moment, coming to face what is most true in Jesus and in him, picks up the embrace of God Jesus offered at the Supper, and discovered that here, here….and this is a moment for all of us to discover, that here, here in the wounds of our weakness and desertion and denial and betrayal we still are accepted, we are still guests….

And the story of the disciples, Peter in the lead, going fishing, and seeing Jesus on the beach, who says to them, after a night where they caught nothing:” “Cast the net to the right side of the boat….” Always and everywhere, wherever we find ourselves, Jesus as stranger or gardener or neighbour stands among us, and offers us an entirely new way of seeing things, an imaginative jolt, not to see different things, but to see things differently. It’s as if he is saying to us: “What you are in love with, what seizes your imaginations, will affect everything”. And then of course the penny drops: out of our illusions and self-deceptions, our blindness to the way we make victims we wake up to an extraordinary new freedom of seeing the face of God in all the victims in our world.

The theological truth of these stories is not a doctrinal statement: we are not, when we come to the resurrection, trying to fit the doctrine into our mode of understanding. The truth of these stories is a truth of a dispositional kind: telling us how God is with us, and how we are to be with God. These stories are told, we tell them again and again, to arouse our astonishment, preparing us to approach this truth with open heart and mind, to prepare ourselves and make us fit to receive this staggering truth which our minds or hearts cannot grasp, but which can grasp us, and make us fit to live such a truth.: to “practice Resurrection”.

“Jesus has risen from the dead. Now he is going before you into Galilee”. God is indeed a “beckoning word”, always going before us into Galilee, not so much at the centre of power but on the edge, on the margins, in the rough and tumble of everyday life, luring and beckoning us into an unknown that we can trust, encouraging us to loosen our hold on the old stories, and to discover and accept this altogether new way of being human. God is indeed a “beckoning word”, always calling us out of our graves, and the fear of death, so that we can fall in love with love, give ourselves away, and know the power and freedom of his resurrection.

Alleluia. Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

 

Reverend Philip Carter

 

Sermon: Easter Vigil – 5th April 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 5.30 am

The angel said: “He has been raised from the dead. Now he is going before you into Galilee”.

Jesus, the risen Jesus, speaks into the space between our clinging, and our longing: the old stories, that we have clung onto, which we have constructed, where we have tried to find some meaning and some hope, have, in the face of Good Friday, collapsed. “We had hoped….” we say, with the bewildered and disillusioned disciples on the road to Emmaus, but these hopes that have centred around the old ways of seeing things, have gone. And this collapse has helped us face up to the fragility of all our stories: how we have defended ourselves, protected ourselves from pain, and insulated ourselves from being hurt, fed ourselves with illusions and false promises. And all these strategies haven’t worked. “We had hoped…” we say. We have tried to make something of ourselves: we have tried to overcome our insecurities; we have tried to form our identities through rivalry and competition, through exclusion and the making of boundaries, making sure about “us” because we have made sure about “them”. And all the while, the peace and communion we have craved has eluded us. “We had hoped…”we say, like so many before us, putting our hopes in a particular way of being religious: thinking that lasting peace can be had in endless compromise and negotiation: even thinking that violence will achieve what we most want.

But all the old securities and certainties have vanished. Everything we hold dear, life itself, we realize, can be snatched away in an instant. And as we face that appalling reality we falter on the brink of a crippling anxiety, fear and even despair: and into this place, a word comes , “a small shy truth”, a word that touches us, and releases something in us, a word that speaks into our longing, that Jesus is raised from the dead and will go before us to Galilee. A word comes, a word of energy and promise that helps us begin to see that faith is not and can never be an assured possession, a tightly held set of certainties. A word comes , telling us that nothing we have learned in life can explain that Jesus has been raised: because the resurrection breaks and erupts into our lives and now waits to be received and affirmed , celebrated and above all else, lived: that an entirely new history has dawned, open to everyone, and peculiarly received by those who are on the edge, marginalized by the old stories and the old ways of doing things

“Now he is going before you to Galilee” opening us up to the realization that God is truly a “beckoning word”: that God always goes before us, always ahead of us, luring and wooing and beckoning us into an unknown that we can trust: encouraging us to loosen our hold on the old stories, to discover an altogether new way of relating and living. “Now he is going before you to Galilee” says to us, thatour future, is far, far greater even than our past, however important and sacred that past is: that our future reaches out to shape and ready us, steady us, calls us, and releases us from all those ways we defend and protect our fragile selves through control and manipulation, and allows us to live more lightly with our vulnerabilities, to see that who we are and what we have is all gift, telling me that simply to say “I believe” is never enough, unless it’s another way of saying “I am”, with all the dignity and freedom that that “I am” captures! “ Now he is going before you to Galilee” This is no fantasy, nor is it magic: but a reality that is tangible and real. Yes: the loss and the grief is real: something has happened: something has died: Jesus has handed himself over: he has moved from action to passion, and as a consequence he has died. And now he invites us into all our losses and little deaths that occur on the way, and discover that all these dark places are in fact the very place of grace: his whole life including his death has been caught up in the resurrection, so that we can say that the new life he offers us is bigger than death and is not ruled by death. As St Paul would say: “Death has no dominion over him”.

So Jesus is the free One, continually going before us to Galilee, speaking into our lives a word of real hope, speaking our “early-morning name”: and offering us this same freedom. As I dare to let this new story become my story, I realize it will be completely different from before: that this new story and this new life is not a solid possession or a fixed meaning, a set of certainties that shield or protect me from the realities of life, but a truth, a truth of a dispositional kind, telling me how God is with me day by day, and telling me how I can be with God. Jesus gives himself away, and offers us that same freedom, so that we too, day by day, can give ourselves away, undergoing a kind of dying-in-advance, so that we never need be driven by death again.

Alleluia. Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

 

 Acknowledgements

We stand on the shoulders of others. In particular: I am grateful to W.H. Vanstone, in The Stature of Waiting, for his shifting of the focus from the death of Jesus to the way Jesus moves from action to passion, culminating in his handing himself over: to Timothy Radcliffe, in Why Go to Church? and What is the Point of being a Christian?, for his insight into how Jesus frustrates and disarms those who betray, deny and desert him, and how he turns his betrayers into guests: to James Alison, who sees so clearly how God doesn’t make victims, but how we need to make victims, which is why Jesus died: to Peter Carnley, in The Structure of Resurrection Belief, for why we keep on telling and re-telling the stories of the resurrection, and for his felicitous phrase, “ a theological truth of a dispositional kind”: and to Rowan Williams, who sees the sacrifice of Jesus, not as a sacrifice that changes God’s mind or makes anything happen, so much as a sacrifice in the sense of something handed over, which affirms and renews what is already true.

Reverend Philip Carter

Sermon: Good Friday – 3rd April 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 9.30 am

Arthur Miller, the great American writer, wrote a play, Death of a Salesman. In it is the central character Willie Loman- an unattractive, travelling salesman. He’s 60- he’s worked for a long time-he’s struggled to pay the mortgage, improve his home- yet she has grown apart from his two sons, and he despairs at the apparent hopelessness in his life. He has been unfaithful to his wife-yet she can see him with clear and loving eyes and she says in wonderfully poignant words:

 He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he is a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He is not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.

 There’s a world of difference between Willie Loman, and Jesus of Nazareth of course. But is there? Surely if we have understood anything about Jesus, we have seen that in the way he hands himself over, in the way he empties himself and takes the form of a slave, he shows us not only something about God, but something about us: that Jesus shares with us our common humanity. When Jesus disarms his betrayers and deniers and welcomes them as guests at the Supper, and hands himself over, it is precisely to the Willie Lomans of this world that he extends his hospitality.

So, just as last night at the Supper, so on this day, “attention must be paid” to this singular human being, And as we pay attention, it becomes apparent that far, far more important than even his miracles of healing, and his teaching, is what the Gospels, each in their own way, depict as the decisive movement where he moves from action to passion, where he ”hands himself over”, where he ceases, of his own will, and as a matter of great inner strength, to be a subject, and places himself into the hands of others as an object simply to be done unto – and all of this reaching its climax in the Garden of Gethsamane. What is decisive, as we pay attention to this man, is his entry into his passion: that he was exposed simply as an object, and treated in whatever way others chose.

It is at this point surely, that we realize the old story has completely collapsed. The one in whom we had set our hopes: the one who could have offered a prayerful, narrowly religious way forward: the one who could have compromised or negotiated for the greater good: the one who could have rallied all our cries for change and walked a revolutionary path: this one eschews all these options, and allows himself to be handed over. The old story with all its certainties and assurances is in tatters: all our hopes are dashed: he has relinquished all power and has bound himself to vulnerability. Here, the prophet who critiques Israel from within, declares in and with his own body, a stunning reversal of all the ways we want to think about ourselves and about God.

In Gethsamane, he takes possession of this drama: here, at his most vulnerable, at his weakest, he offers us an altogether new way of being human. The disciples would take time to come to see this, take time to put things together, just as we so often do. For this new way of being human, this new form of community does not need to find its identity through violence or exclusion: it does not need to expel any one: it does not need an enemy ”out there”, it does not demand a “them” in relation to “us”.

Jesus in handing himself over shows us that violence never achieves the communion or peace we crave. Jesus occupies the space of the victim to show us that we need never do this again. He didn’t die because God wanted or needed a victim: he died because we want and need victims. Here, in this singular movement from action to passion, Jesus absorbs, and does not pass on, violence, envy or abuse.

What Jesus does is bring to an end a whole way of being religious. In his body, he draws attention to a reality that the sacrificial system has always pointed towards, and has never achieved: communion with God. What he did is the culmination of a long and gradual process, a prophetic process of withdrawal from all forms of sacred violence. Jesus allowed himself to be handed over in full awareness of its consequences: he did not wish to be the victim: there was no death wish in him. In full awareness of what he was doing, and its consequences, he offered this entirely new way of being Israel: of being human: of being a light to the world.

Sacrifice: understood as making something happen, as making a difference in God’s attitude towards us, as somehow persuading God to change his mind about us: this way of approaching God is forever finished with what Jesus did. His is no sacrifice, in this sense, but rather the end of an entire sacrificial system: what Jesus did, is sacrificial, if we understand it to be a handing over, not making anything happen so much as revealing and affirming what has always been the case: namely that we are already one: we are already in communion, both with God and with each other: that we are already forgiven. As Julian of Norwich would say: God can’t forgive, because there has never been a time when God hasn’t forgiven! So we pay attention to this man: we let go of the old story of certainty and triumph, the old story that constantly needed a victim, that fed on competition and rivalry and exclusion: and like him, we find the courage to hand ourselves over, not in resignation or despair, but in vulnerable, non-violent self-giving love.

This kingdom-prophet wanted not just his band of followers to embrace his vision: he wanted the authorities, those in power to do the same. And he did this because of his overarching sense of vocation: called by God to show something of God, and God’s glory: to show what is utterly distinctive about God: that God, out of love, hands God-self over: that God is nothing other than self-giving, self-emptying love, both in the act of creation and in the person of Jesus.

God, like any creative artist, hands over his very self, and waits upon what is created. This vulnerable “suffering”, this passion, gives over to the other the power of both being and meaning. Jesus enacts this self-giving in his very passion: this is nothing less than unconditional love, love without strings, love that offers everything to the other, love that is without limit, love that is precarious, love that risks all for the other’s sake, love that gives to the object of our loving a certain power over us, love that hands over the issue and outcome and response. When I love you like this, the response you make is not in my control: that is love’s risk. “If you love you get crucified: if you don’t, you’re dead already”.

“Attention, attention, must finally be paid to such a person”. For here we can say with Julian of Norwich: “Love was his meaning. Who showed it you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show you? Love. Hold onto this and you will know and understand love more and more”.

And so we wait: just as God waits, just as Jesus waited. Having given all: all he could do for the cause of the kingdom, to win the nation to discipleship, to bring his close followers with him: having handed himself over in Gethsemane he shows himself to have risked all, to spare himself nothing: and the consequence of this is that he is handed over to death. And so we wait. This time between Good Friday and Easter Day is the most poignant of days: our liturgies fail us, just as our old stories have failed us: we are reduced to waiting , a place of great grace if we can bear it: where we are stripped of illusion and false hopes, where we can wake up to the reality of our real needs and true values: where we can begin, if we dare, to let a “small shy truth” speak into our bewildered hearts; a “small shy truth” that offers the possibility of meaning, the meaning that is found in the only absolute there is, namely Love: a love that will require our hearts to break and be enlarged, our minds admit to their inadequacies and yet sense a wider horizon, ourselves be touched by a mystery beyond our understanding and our words, but which might just possibly be all we need to know and do.

Reverend Philip Carter

 

Sermon: Maundy Thursday – 2nd April 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7.45 pm

Tobias Wolf, an American novelist, wrote a book called Old School, and in it he describes a boy who wins a prize for a short story that he has not written himself: he took it from a magazine. Eventually he is found out and disgraced: yet as you read the book you are left with the impression that he has in fact done nothing dishonourable. And this is because the story is so exactly his story: the story is the one story that makes sense of his life: it is precisely the story he has been yearning to write and to live: this is the story of all that he is and longs to be, the story that he has to, of course, claim as his own.

The story that we tell, from this Thursday evening through to Sunday morning- the story we tell every year at this time- is of course the story of Jesus….but we tell it, again and again, because we have sensed, albeit tentatively, that this is our story as well: because we have been touched by the fact that this story throws light on our stories, that this story makes sense and provides meaning for our lives: that this story enlarges our horizons and brings us both the courage and the hope to become more fully alive and more fully human.

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

 On this bitter-sweet night, this young Kingdom-prophet , who has been grasped by a vocation to speak directly into the very heart of Israel, to speak a word of love: to an Israel who, according to Jesus had lost its way, who had failed to live up to its vocation, who had sought its identity through exclusion and vlolence, and who , through corruption and injustice, had collaborated with Roman imperial control: this prophet of the reign of God now offers Israel another, alternative agenda, another story, an interpretation of a tradition that challenged entrenched attitudes, that looked outward rather than inward, that championed a universal way of being human over a particular way of being religious, that would include rather than exclude, and called Israel into a new vocation to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth.

So on this night Jesus called his twelve disciples to Supper, and whilethey were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me”.

 On this night: the story that had sustained them until now collapses: Judas is to betray Jesus: Peter is on the brink of denial: and the other disciples will flee in fear. The community of followers, which Jesus has nurtured along the way, falters in the face of what threatens, and is about to disintegrate. And what those two disciples said on the road to Emmaus, after the resurrection: “We had hoped….” pretty much says it all for us too: for just like them, some of us still search for ways through, or out: through compromise, bargaining and negotiation: some of us still think the answer lies in being religious in a particular way, simply saying our prayers and not getting caught up in the dirty business of politics and social justice; and some of us think revolution and even violence is the only answer.

But Jesus “loves us to the end”: he takes a loaf of bread, and anticipates through ritual and symbol the way forward, by moving from action to passion, by handing himself over, and disarming his betrayers: frustrating them, in the sense that “their job is done for them by their victim”. It’s not that he passively accepts or resigns himself: he transforms this moment, this moment of betrayal, denial and desertion, into a moment of grace: “you will hand me over’, he says, but “I will grasp this infidelity and make it my gift to you”.

His imaginative vision was of a new, reconstituted Israel, forgiven and freed, where exile was forever ended: here Jesus offers himself as the new Temple, a new community centred on him. His subversive agenda was a call to follow him, and become his companions in the alternative kingdom-story he was now enacting, defeating evil by absorbing it and not passing it on, letting it do its worst in him. He would be the centre of an entirely new story: he would be the reality to which the whole now outdated sacrificial system had pointed.

So into this place where the old story had collapsed: where the community had disintegrated, Jesus plays out in ritual and with symbol…. a community where the worst betrayal or denial can never again be the last word: where meaning is still possible, where the power of truth triumphs, and where hope comes to birth: the lived truth, the conviction, that even when things don’t turn out well, or as we expected, this self-giving love alone makes sense, this alone endures.

And all this spells freedom, the forgiveness that tells us that we are still, and always invited as guests at this meal in spite of our failures and weakness, betrayals and denials. This is our new story, which we can begin to learn to live from the inside out, just as he did. He relinquished power in the face of impending violence, desertion and denial: he hands himself over and at the same time transforms the evil we inflict on each other, and forever turns betrayal into gift, and betrayers into guests: and in all this he shows us the way, not of certainty but possibility, not of clinging but yearning, not of defensiveness, but of freedom.

So on the verge of our own story collapsing, our sense of meaning and community disintegrating, Jesus anticipates our loss: as he took bread he said: “This is my body given for you” – drawing us inwards, into a new community, “you in me, and I you”. It’s as if Jesus is saying to us: “Do not forget, but remember: when you do this, even in the worst of times, I will be with you, in the closest of all possible ways: you in me, and I in you”. Here Jesus turns the Jewish understanding of holiness upside down: this man who let himself be touched by women, who kissed a leper, who ate with prostitutes and sinners: offers us a completely new way of being human, crossing boundaries, transcending our split mentality of what is pure and impure, the boundaries between male and female, Jew and Gentile, and offering a new way forward, where we can give up what separates and divides, and discover a larger vocation, an inclusive community, a universal way of being human. “This is my body given for you”.

Then – when the cup is poured out for many – you will be called and drawn outwards, outwards towards the other, whoever and wherever she is. In John’s gospel, this meal is characterized by the foot washing: overturning the fantasy that God’s power is just like ours. Our sense of who we are is built on division, between them and us: built on rivalry and fear and exclusion: “but it will not be so with you”: for “if you want to be first of all, you must be the slave of all, for the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve”. “If I have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet”. Here our eyes are opened: all is gift. The other is not an obstacle to our coming-to-be, but the very means for our coming-to-be. Here, as we break bread together, and share a cup of wine, our vocation is realized: we are already home, we are already one and in communion, and at the same time, called to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. In his famous parable about the sheep and the goats, Jesus suggests that judgement will be determined not in terms of belonging to this or that group, or believing this or that dogma, but only in terms of our relationship towards victims: to those who hunger, thirst, are naked, sick or imprisoned.

On this night, Jesus anticipates the worst that will happen, not only to him, but to his followers: and at the same time, opens up the transformative power of self-giving, self-emptying love. By handing himself over, by moving from action to passion, Jesus offers us a new story: his story, is to be our story: his handing over, our handing over: his death, our death: his life, our life. He invites us to live his story: to live it from the inside and make it our own: and to live it knowing that nothing can ever stop his gracious hospitality, his eternal gift to us. This bread, which is his body, his life, is the promise of his presence with us always: this bread, which is the bread of the kingdom, energizing and galvanizing us to be, in our own way, bread for the world.

Reverend Philip Carter