Lent 4 – Sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 27th March 2022

Joshua 5.9-12; Psalm 32; 2Corinthians 5.16-21; Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32

The Kingdom by R. S. Thomas

It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.

Three weeks ago, on the first Sunday in Lent, as the full horror of the war in Ukraine became apparent, we read together of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. I offered the suggestion that, rather than describing that time as one of temptation, it might be better understood within the phrase in our modern translation of the Lord’s Prayer: Do not bring us into the time of trial, but deliver us from evil. Jesus’ time of testing, like any time of trial, is what reveals what we truly believe in, what our faith is, particularly in the face of evil. This week our Gospel reading – that most famous parable of the Prodigal Son – engages us with the phrase in the Lord’s Prayer immediately prior to that: Forgive us our sins, our trespasses, as we forgive those who sin against us.

Last week, Paul in his sermon reflected on what faith in a good God means in a world where evil and suffering seem so ever present and triumphant. This week our Gospel gives us Jesus’ sustained response to that persistent question: the response of faith in the power of forgiveness. For forgiveness lies, of course, at the heart of the parable: ‘while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.’

That moment, when the father sees his son far off, and runs towards him, remains profoundly moving with the power to shock us. The son who by demanding his share of the family inheritance early, and then squandering it, effectively cut off his father and treated him as dead, is greeted by that same father with an embrace of love and forgiveness that silences the son’s practised words of penitence. Here is Jesus’ picture of the presence of God among us – in the father’s overwhelming response to a child who had done the unthinkable.

And whether we identify with the son, as those who have in different ways made that journey into a far country and then found our way back home, to discover the warm embrace of forgiveness; or if we identify with the father, called to respond, beyond rationality and justice, to offer forgiveness to enable new life; this parable takes us to the heart of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom, the possibility of a different relationship being known to sustain and transform us.

And yet, in our continuing time of trial, and more particularly the time of trial for millions of people across Ukraine, and the surrounding countries, does the language and practice of forgiveness really offer much? It can seem a fragile and futile response to the depth of callousness evident in the destruction of Mariupol. What can talk of forgiveness really mean in a world of Vladimir Putins? The danger of this being cheap talk, forgiveness a cloak that simply covers over a multitude of sins, is surely all too real.

It’s a question and a perspective that the Parable gives voice to, of course, in the response of the older son – his aghast anger, and refusal to join the party, over the obvious injustice of his errant brother receiving the full fatted calf treatment: ‘When this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”

It’s a response that makes perfect sense. And we would have to be naïve in the extreme, if we thought that there will be a moment when Putin and his henchmen make a journey from the far country of the brutality of war, and come seeking forgiveness. The demands of realpolitik, of compromise and the negotiations of troop strengths and battle realiites, are what will, we pray and hope, bring an end to the suffering of Ukraine. The father’s response to his elder son – “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” – that response doesn’t feel like it addresses the realities of war.

In the parable itself, we don’t hear how the older brother responds to the father; he may well remain unconvinced. The reconciliation with his brother may have taken a long time, if it happened at all. That question is left hanging. But the father’s response opens up the question – it offers the possibility of reconciliation, a new perspective to shift what had become hardened and embittered opinions.

And in the midst of the brutality of war – of the devastating callousness of the bombing and destruction of cities, the need to hang on to that possibility, to hold on to the faith that refuses to let such callousness and cynicism define us, becomes ever more urgent.

And this is how God’s mercy and forgiveness operate – as that unquenchable possibility ever held out, that we might be drawn into that practice of reconciliation and forgiveness. And our response is the faith that our humanity is best defined by moments of grace, of unmerited and unexpected forgiveness, rather than brute power. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.

It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
…. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.

 

Lent 3 – sermon preached by Revd Canon Prof Paul Foster – Sunday 20th March

Luke 13.1-9; Isa 55.1-9

One of the perennial challenges that is levelled against the truth of Christianity is the so-called “problem of evil”. In a nutshell, the challenge is often framed something like this: If the God whom Christians proclaim is both all good and all powerful, how can that God allow evil to occur in the world? The premise that underlies the dilemma is that the Christian understanding of a God who is supposedly opposed to evil, but allows evil to exist in the world calls into question either the belief that God is all powerful and all good, or alternatively shows that God does not exist. This challenge to belief in an all powerful and all loving God is not new. In fact it predates Christianity. The Greek philosopher, Epicurus, writing in the late fourth or early third century B.C. is our first known proponent of this dilemma. However, in the Enlightenment Age the problem of the presence of evil in the world was given fresh impetus as a significant challenge to the claims of Christianity.

In 1711, in a tenement in Edinburgh’s Lawnmarket a boy was born named David Hume. He became one of the dazzling philosophical intellects the eighteenth century. In his work, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, first published three years after his death, Hume popularised and restated the problem of evil in the world as not being compatible with belief in an all powerful, benevolent God. Hume statement of the problem was more nuanced than that of some of his predecessors. In the somewhat archaic and gendered language of the eighteenth century, Hume stated the matter in the following form:

[God’s] power we allow [is] infinite: Whatever he wills is executed: But neither man nor any other animal are happy: Therefore he does not will their happiness. His wisdom is infinite: He is never mistaken in choosing the means to any end: But the course of nature tends not to human or animal felicity: Therefore it is not established for that purpose. Through the whole compass of human knowledge, there are no inferences more certain and infallible than these. In what respect, then, do his benevolence and mercy resemble the benevolence and mercy of men?

In essence, Hume demonstrated that what humans understand by benevolence and mercy cannot by attributed to God in a simple, anthropomorphizing manner. The other possibility that logically presented itself as a consequence of Hume’s argument was that one was left having to deny the existence of God.

The problem faced by Epicurus and Hume is not an issue that is avoided in the pages of scripture. The people of Israel cry out to God during their slavery in the land of Egypt, the Psalmist is heard weeping to God for justice by the waters of Babylon during a time of forced migration from homeland, and in today’s gospel reading Jesus is forced to confront the issue of the problem of innocent suffering. Members of the crowd inform Jesus of the current atrocities of his day. Pilate, the leading representative of the Roman invaders, had slaughtered some Galileans and perhaps as a mockery of their beliefs he had mingled their blood with that of the sacrifices they offered. We know of no further details of this story. In fact that is a lesson in itself. Age on age, humanity’s inhumanity to fellow human beings continues. Most of it passes unobserved. We are shocked at those times when we observe it, especially if it takes place on a grand scale. However, the reality is that there seems little limit to the ways in which fellow humans can cause suffering and pain to one another. Jesus’ response is striking. He does not engage in a rebuke of Pilate and the oppressive Roman overlords who had invaded the holy land. Instead, Jesus’ first concern is to defend the victims. There is no divine calculus in this situation. These slaughtered Galileans were no worse, or no more deserving of this fate than other Galileans. Here we do well to remember that Jesus was himself a Galilean. He seems to remind his dialogue partners that bad things sometimes happen to very normal people just because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jesus, the Galilean, expresses solidarity with these victims. They were no worse than those who had the good fortune not to suffer in this way. Then, in our reading, Jesus uses these tragic circumstances to issue his first call for repentance. The link is not entirely obvious, but in the face of such an almost random act of violence Jesus calls on people to turn to God as the only sure and certain safeguard.

Jesus’ next statement seems to make the discussion more difficult, rather than resolving it. Perhaps Pilate’s actions could be explained as human oppression stemming from free will rather than divine purpose. However, Jesus presents a more theologically troubling example. The random collapse of the tower of Siloam that resulted in the death of eighteen inhabitants in Jerusalem could not as easily be attributed to inhumane and rapacious invaders. Instead, it was a seemingly random event. We face the same explanatory conundrums today. As Christians we can perhaps give an account of the suffering experienced in war or famine as being due to oppressive or greedy individuals who put self-interest above care for fellow human beings. However, global pandemics or pacific islands devastated by tsunamis are not so easily explained away. Why does a supposedly all powerful deity permit these non-human events to cause so much pain and suffering? We all know that we would delude ourselves if we thought there are easy or formulaic answers to such questions.

It is at this point that our gospel reading appears to change topics with Jesus recounting the parable of the fig tree. However, I am not convinced that the parable is unrelated to the foregoing dialogue. The fig tree was often used as a horticultural image for Israel, which was called upon to be productive and fruitful. Here, Jesus depicts a barren and unproductive tree that should perhaps be cut down. The parable, however, speaks of a delay in judgment. It portrays a belief that things can be turned around. Maybe it enshrines a hope that given time people can recognize the barrenness of their own actions and make amends. However, there is also a note of realism here. The fig tree is given only one further year to produce fruit. After that intervention is necessary.

You do not need me to tell you that we live in a world that is now more uncertain than it was a month ago, let alone a year ago. Why does a good God, an all powerful God let events unfold in the manner they do? There are no easy answers. Perhaps part of the answer relates to the autonomy given to human beings to be good stewards, to act for the benefit of all and not just for the few. Those of you who know a little Greek will know the Greek word for ‘few’ is ὀλίγος, but I cannot for the life of me think why mentioning that at this point of the sermon was relevant. From the creation stories in Genesis we see that God entrusts creation to a humanity made in God’s own image, to care and steward it in a responsible manner. The failure to act in such a way is a failure to live up to the highest expression of being human and part of a wider human society. It is a failure to be an icon of the God who made humanity in the divine image.

Yet God’s provision for creation and humanity is not simply a handing over of creation into human hands, and letting matters take their own course. Our reading from the Old Testament is drawn from the latter part of Isaiah, maybe written a century or more after the first part of that prophetic text. The people of Judah had spent decades exiled from their homeland, and they were in the early stages of returning to the land. What encourages me in this text is not simply the sense of joy at the return, but that the experience of exile had created a new outlook. The passage is characterized by a spirit of invitation. The repeated use of the word ‘come’ is a call to people share freely in water without payment, to partake freely of food and wine and milk. Suffering has led to greater desire to share resources with equity. The people of Israel, through their experience of exile and displacement, have had their understanding enlarged of what it means to be God’s people. Their purpose is to serve other nations. They are told that they are to be both a witness to the peoples, and to call all the nations into relationship with God. Here there is a remarkable and transformative vision of the solidarity of humanity. One group is not to prosper at the expense of another, and any sense of privilege is to be replaced by a sense of service to all. Then in one of the most outward looking passages in the bible, all people are invited to ‘seek the Lord while he may found, call upon him while he is near’ (Isa 55.6). As Jesus recognised that the slaughter of innocent Galileans or the death of eighteen Jerusalemites in a building collapse could only be comprehended through a call to repentance, the text of Isaiah written after the trauma of exile issues its own open call to repentance. The wicked are to forsake their ways, unrighteous thoughts are to be set aside, people are to return to the Lord, and then pardon and mercy will be poured out abundantly.

It is not possible to answer the dilemma that the problem of evil poses in a way that is entirely satisfying. Isaiah appears to know this when proclaiming the words of God he writes, ‘my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor my ways your ways says the Lord. For as the heaven are higher than the earth so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ (Isa 55.8-9). However, while we might not explain the problem of evil, we are called upon to respond to evil wherever it is found. Like the prophet Isaiah, our prophetic ministry is to call out evil wherever it is found. To call upon people to set aside inhumane acts that seek the good of the few over the wellbeing of all, and to call the people of all nations to seek the Lord.

Responding to evil, rather than explaining it away is our calling as the body of Christ. At times Christians must confront evil by standing in harm’s way. In the end, at least for me the best response to the problem of evil is not theory, but action. The all good, all powerful God does not stand apart from human suffering. Instead it is that God who takes human form, who stands alongside not just fellow Galileans but all humanity, and ultimately goes to the cross as a victim of the cruelty of the same Roman governor who mingled human and sacrificial blood. The icon of the suffering and crucified Christ, with arms outstretched in welcome, is the same image we must present to the world at this moment of heart-breaking suffering and unexplainable evil. We need to call to the displaced and homeless to come; to come and share our hospitality without money without price. Maybe the problem of evil cannot be ultimately explained, but by such actions perhaps the power of evil can be defeated through the suffering love of Christ, who by his resurrection and incarnation joins all people to him in one shared humanity, both now and through unending ages, world without end, Amen.

Lent 1 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 6th March

Deuteronomy 26.1-11; Psalm 91.1-2, 9-16; Romans 10.8b-13; Luke 4.1-13

Like Christians throughout the ages, and as commanded by Jesus, we shall later in today’s service pray, Lead us not into temptation. It’s always struck me that that is an odd thing for Jesus to ask his followers to pray, given that at the start of his ministry, as we heard in today’s Gospel, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the place of temptation, into the wilderness where Jesus wrestles, or at least confronts the devil and his questions.

Lead us not into temptation. In the modern translation of the original Greek, a translation which explicitly wants to avoid the inference that God might be the one who tempts us, the line is rendered ‘Save us from the time of trial’ or as the Scottish Episcopal Church has in its modern version: ‘Do not bring us to the time of trial.’  I do think those modern translations are more adequate – I was planning to use the modern translation of the Lord’s Prayer in today’s service but, you may or may not pleased to hear, the service sheet had been printed before I had the chance to change it.

A reason for that change from temptation to trial might be that the word ‘temptation’ doesn’t get to the heart of the existential exchange in the wilderness described in Luke’s Gospel. We are no doubt tempted by all sorts of things: indulgence, lust, greed, gossip; and I have no doubt of the power of temptation within addiction. And those temptations do need often to be resisted. But temptations understood in this way are not really what Jesus faced. A time of trial feels like a better description. For here in the wilderness, Jesus in his time of trial, has to confront and refuse the hard consolations of power and status. Whether we pray about being spared from temptations or a time of trial, however, the issue remains. Is there one request for Jesus, and another for us? Why do we pray that we may not be brought to the time of trial, when it is in that trial that Jesus’ understanding of himself and God’s purpose is defined and honed?

Do not bring us to the time of trial. Those words have an immediate resonance when prayed in the context of current events in Ukraine. The population there are indeed in the midst of a time of trial that they would have fervently prayed not to be brought to. For many, for us sometimes, the time of trial is not something we choose. It is thrust upon us by external events – illness, bereavement, the need of others; the people of Ukraine are brought to this time of trial by the heartless, almost inexplicable actions of a neighbouring despot. We, they, are brought to the time of trial, despite our prayer. In our Gospel, however, following the Spirit’s promptings, Jesus enters the wilderness voluntarily. And that freedom certainly alters the dynamic of his time of trial. Jesus chooses to enter in, perhaps in solidarity with those who do not and cannot choose, to be brought to a time of trial.

And in the midst of that trial, the devil wears a number of faces: he quotes scripture; he pretends to have the power to hand over all things into Jesus’s hands; he offers both the miraculous (changing stones onto bread) and the reasonable (God will surely save you if you are that important) as solutions to the trial. Sometimes the choices we face are obvious, and evil is unmasked; but more often than not, the time of trial is about the hard work of discernment, the recognition of where the slippery slope begins, where one compromise leads to another and all suddenly becomes relative. You’re hungry, says the devil, just change the stones into bread and you’re sorted. Just leave God out of the picture, and I can give you it all – that’s not much to ask is it? Ok, so you insist upon this God, well then prove that God is real, show yourself that it is all true.

It’s tempting to think that Jesus had some superhuman power to resist these questions that are familiar to us all, in one guise or another. But at the heart of this time of trial Jesus resists the temptation to be something other than fully human – he refuses the miraculous by insisting that that is not what life is about; the idolatrous, by recognising his humility before God; the temptation to think himself special, by refusing to play that game. His answer to the temptations is to insist that he is a human like any other – hungry, but able to see that life is more than bread; not in charge, but living out faith in God, to whom our worship is directed; like every human, Jesus insists that he is vulnerable to accident and hurt, but still trusts in the good purposes of God. However we understand Jesus’ divinity, it does not short-circuit his humanity.

Rather, his time of trial reveals his humanity, his solidarity with us all, in stark terms. His time of trial reveals the depths of his humanity, and ours. Just as the people of Ukraine, in their time of trial, are revealing what really matters, what must be resisted with every fibre of being; unmasking the persistent perils of evil that seeks domination and the worship of power.

And we are called to do likewise, in this season of Lent and in time of trials, whether chosen or those that arrive unbidden. Lent is not some superhuman assault course, but a reorientation that places God at the centre, and reveals the depths of our humanity. It’s a stripping away, certainly, of our normal preoccupations; but a stripping away to insist, like Jesus, that there is more to being human than the fight for daily bread, that our humanity is in our humility before God, and that faith is faith when it is known in the time of trial, however much we might pray not to be brought there.

Let us pray:

Spirit of truth and judgement,
who alone can exorcise the powers that grip our world;
at the point of crisis give us your discernment,
that we may accurately name what is evil,
and know the way that leads to peace,
through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Epiphany 7 – Sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 20th February

1Cor 15.35-38,42-50; Luke 6.27-38

The Gospel reading which we just heard is at the heart of Jesus’ sermon on the level plain. It’s a pretty good sermon, perhaps the most incisive, plain speaking sermon of Jesus that we have. After that, more words, another sermon, from me is almost certainly unnecessary.

“I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Silence maybe is the appropriate response. The silence of reflection, and prayer. Any further words run the risk of seeking to avoid the issue. For here we are met by the heart of the gospel, and in the reversal of our customary values the sheer magnitude of Jesus’ teaching is presented in all its starkness.

“If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and expect nothing in return.”

Perhaps in our silence we wonder at the impossibility, or the futility, of such requests. It’s not sensible. As Russians and Ukrainians face off across fragile borders, and the rest of us fear what comes next; as we try and negotiate our own politics and society so often dominated by division, and anger, and social media driven bile; as we become aware of more and more people driven by cost of living increases into reliance on food banks; as we sometimes fall out even with those we otherwise love – what can it mean to love our enemies, to lend without expectation of return?

Martin Luther King knew something about the depth and power and possibility of loving our enemies, even as he also knew that that meant putting himself, in the name of love, in situations of conflict and suffering. But crucially that love of enemies was rooted in a desire for the redemption of all creation – the transformation of all things, himself included. As Martin Luther King told his most bitter opponents: “Be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not solely for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”

So maybe in our silence we turn to confession: we know deep down that Jesus is right, that cycles of violence and retaliation will only be broken  – and us and them become we – when we walk the way of forgiveness and love, however difficult that may seem. We glimpse that in Martin Luther King, or Desmond Tutu, but wonder if we can ever live up to that example. Perhaps we don’t think of ourselves as having enemies. But even here, in daily life, as friends, family and neighbours wind us up, the tricky practice of loving those we do love and live alongside can seem far off. And so in the silence, forgive us Lord, we pray.

And in the silence maybe the Holy Spirit can begin to do her work. Jesus’ words are not simply a new obligation, a command we are obliged to keep, so that we only ever fail. They are an invitation to see the world in different terms, and so let the Holy Spirit begin the work of transformation. So that us and them becomes we: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

In that mercy, in that forgiving love at the heart of all things, is our, our, redemption.

St Paul wrote to the church of Corinth, a church community somewhat wracked by divisions: “The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, let us also bear the image of the man of heaven.”

In a moment Beatrice will be baptised into the life of the Spirit, the Spirit who transforms the dust of which we are made into that which also bears the image of the man of heaven. Today Beatrice is welcomed into that community that walks, however hesitantly, that path of transformation. She will not be transformed in an instant; but the promises that you make today, parents and godparents, are about enabling her to walk in the faith that sees the world as a place of possibility, that imagines the overcoming of enmity and division, that is open to the transformation that the Holy Spirit enables. Where us and them, you and me, become we. That faith and imagination need nurturing in Beatrice, and in us; faith and imagination need space and silence and inspiration. They are born through death and resurrection, as baptism prefigures. We are dust, and yet capable of such acts of love and generosity. For at the heart of reality is a grace that loves beyond sense, loves us into life, loves us so that we might be that for which we were created, loves the dust into heavenly shapes. And it is that wonderful possibility in Beatrice, and the promises and intentions that will nurture it, that we celebrate today, as we ask the Holy Spirit to baptise her, transform the dust of which she, and we, are made, to bear the imprint of heaven.

I have filled the silence with a lot of words. Let us journey back into silence in the words of a prayer by Janet Morley, which says succinctly what, forgive me, I have struggled to convey:

Christ our teacher,
you urge us beyond all reason
to love our enemies,
and pray for our oppressors.
May we embrace such folly
not through subservience, but strength;
that unmeasured generosity
may be poured into our lap,
through Jesus Christ, Amen.

Epiphany 4 – Sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 30th January 2022

Jeremiah 1.4-10; 1 Corinthians 13.1-13; Luke 4.21-30

Often on this Sunday close to February 2nd, we would be celebrating the Feast of Candlemas, of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and his acclamation there by Simeon and Anna, as the light for all people. Candlemas is the Feast that marks the end of the Season of Epiphany – the last of the signs, epiphanies, of who this person, Jesus, is, of the light that has come into the world. We will celebrate Candlemas, with the traditional Blessing of the Light this afternoon, within Evensong. But this morning, we are marking the 4th Sunday in Epiphany, not least because this is the one Sunday in our 3 year cycle of readings when we have the opportunity to hear and ponder the 13th chapter of Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians. If we had the Candlemas readings, we would not hear it on a Sunday for another 3 years.

No doubt Paul’s great hymn to love, is familiar, perhaps over-familiar to you, from weddings and other great occasions. But hearing it in a different context is an opportunity to engage afresh with its challenge as well as its comfort. For the first thing to note is that it follows on from Paul’s reflections that we heard last week about the church being one body with diverse members. The hymn to love addresses the challenge that that diversity in the Body brings: how do we relate to those who are different to us, who rub us up the wrong way, or articulate different priorities or sense of what faith demands? 1Corinthians 13 is a tough-minded view of love – it is not a sentimental pean to warm fuzzy feelings, but is rooted in Paul’s passion to create communities of disciples, seeking to follow the crucified and risen one in the outworking of their lives. And this outworking of love is ultimately rooted in the nature of the universe itself: ‘Now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.’

In our culture seemingly saturated with references to love, it can be difficult to grasp the extraordinary nature of that claim: that love, not power; love, not the strong or the beautiful; love, not what we own; love, is what abides, is the enduring key to what matters. Wouldn’t we live a little differently if we really believed that? If we really believed that it is the love we encounter, the love we bring to birth, the love in which we live, that will abide, endure, be of lasting significance?

But I’m aware that I’m in danger of getting all misty-eyed about love, in precisely the way I think Paul is trying to avoid! Our Gospel reading, however, provides a salutary lesson in the perils of love masquerading as something else, and what love might actually ask of us.

Our Gospel follows on from last week’s proclamation by Jesus, using the words of the Prophet Isaiah, that God ‘has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ An announcement he brings joltingly into the present of his hearers at the start of today’s Gospel: ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

Last week, Colin Sinclair, the minister of our brothers and sisters in Palmerston Place Church, spelt out the ways in which that announcement is then enacted in Jesus’ ministry: in the release from sin and illness seen in his ministry of forgiveness and healing. It is crucial to understand the extent, in Jesus’ time, to which sin and illness (and they were often seen as synonymous) were that which cut you off from society, from others. To be released from sin and illness was about restoring someone to community, into relationship that had been broken and cut off. So the release Jesus speaks of is not simply the inner bonds that prevent an individual from flourishing (we tend to think about illness or sin in those terms). In Jesus’ day sin and illness are defined by the community in ways that prevent a person being accepted. So alongside particular afflictions, people are being released by Jesus from the social forces that exclude them.

And that is why Jesus’ announcement, and his ministry which lives it out, is good news for the poor. Not just the economically poor, but those excluded on other grounds too. His ministry enacts an acceptance and welcome into communion with God: the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed, the leper, the maimed, the lame. It is not just that individuals are healed of their afflictions – but the social order is being overturned thereby. Your gender, family heritage, financial position, health or lack of it, religious purity, these no longer determine whether you are in or out. The grace of God extends to all. Jesus is bringing release.

No wonder there is a palpable sense of excitement in that synagogue in Nazareth – ‘the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him’ we are told. And all speak well of him, and are amazed at the gracious words that come from his mouth. ‘Is this not Joseph’s son?’ they ask. He’s one of us, we’re onto a winner here. But it’s precisely that kind of thinking Jesus is trying to overturn – he has no desire to be captured; to proclaim release and then be commandeered by the Nazareth Home Rule Brigade. And so he reminds his hearers that there is a long history of prophets not being accepted in their own country; and of God seeking to save those well beyond the boundaries of what is deemed acceptable. There is a restlessness to the release that Jesus proclaims, and the ministry he seeks to enact, that drives him out from the cosy and familiar surroundings of home.

And I think that is where our Gospel intersects with Paul’s hymn to love. For is love about primarily looking after you own, taking care of family and friends? Or is love also that which reaches out beyond the inner circle, the familiar, and creates relationship where there was none, helps release the previously constricted and bound. Is love a boundary marker or a boundary breaker? Love is often thought as that which I offer to those within my (tight) circle, but not beyond. But to hear the force of Paul and Jesus’ words is to recognise that love is the surprising drive which helps us overcome our fear of the unknown, the stranger, the person beyond the pale, all those beyond our tight circle.

For Jesus, for Paul, if love is at the heart of God, is that which abides, then love is that which brings release by including the excluded. Of course we learn to love often in the most intense and primary relationships of family. But Paul draws out the strength of love because it is that which enables, in the church, the inclusion of the unloved; it will enable that diversity of the Body with many different members. And that primacy of love is what we proclaim to the world, as what finally matters: the inclusion into society of refugees, of the poor, of the disabled, is crucial because it is a marker of the presence of love, or lack of it, in our social order. God’s grace and love welcome all; overturning our social markers and divisions, our parochialism and our narrow concern for me and mine. That’s as challenging now as it was to those members of Nazareth synagogue.

But love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Amen.

Epiphany 1 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 9th January

Isaiah 43.1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8.14-17; Luke 3.15-17, 21-22

The New year, despite the dark and cold – or perhaps because of the dark and cold – often begins with a burst of optimism. In the setting of new year resolutions there is a sense of turning over a new leaf, making a fresh start. But this year feels different I think: I’ve not heard much talk of new year’s resolutions, and that’s perhaps because after nearly two years of this exhausting and over-turning pandemic, we are all too aware of how optimistic endeavour can be undone by events. It feels hard to plan ahead and chart a new course, when we are so unsure what the next few months are going to bring. And yet, our readings on this Sunday, the first of the season of Epiphany, chiming with that new year, always invite us to the baptism of Christ – and that surely is about a new beginning.

It’s certainly true that at the heart of the Gospel descriptions of Jesus’ baptism is the declaration that this is where the re-creation that is enacted in Christ begins. The baptism of Jesus by John on the banks of the Jordan is the beginning of the story of Jesus that all four Gospels share: we have heard, of course, the stories of the nativity from Matthew and Luke; and John’s beginning in the Word existing before time; but those different ways of describing the coming into being of Jesus converge with Mark’s telling in this event: this moment of baptism. And the language that is used to describe it is rich with symbolism drawn from the biblical account of the first creation. In the account of creation in Genesis, the Spirit moves over the face of the waters, so that life and order emerge out of those waters that symbolize chaos and disorder and death.

So perhaps in our time of exhaustion, when hope seems in short supply, we need to first dwell on that entering into the waters that is the first movement of baptism. Jesus, at the start of his ministry does not set himself apart, but enters the waters along with everyone else, enters those waters of chaos and death. And actually, our present sense of things being out of control, disordered, is not something new to most of humanity most of the time, but a description of the human condition. This is what God coming alongside us looks like – an immersion into what life is.

The American writer Anne Lamott puts it well in this description of baptism: ‘It’s about full immersion, about falling into something elemental and wet. Most of what we do in worldly life is geared toward our staying dry, looking good, not going under. But in baptism, in lakes and rain and tanks and fonts, you agree to do something that’s a little sloppy because at the same time it’s also holy, and absurd. It’s about surrender, giving in to all those things we can’t control; it’s a willingness to let go of balance and decorum and get drenched.’

Jesus baptism begins with an entering into, a drenching in, the human condition in all its chaos. And we know all about that chaos, a sense that things are out of order, even as we long for things to be otherwise. And in that longing we hear of God’s purposes. As Isaiah put it in our first reading this morning:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.

And so Christ rises from the waters; and as Luke beautifully describes it, receives, in prayer, the gift of the Spirit, as he hears those words of the Father that will underpin and ground the life and ministry to come: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

Jean Vanier, who helped create the L’Arche communities, told the story of Pierre, a learning disabled resident of one the communities, who was asked if he liked praying. ‘Yes’ he answered. ‘What do you do when you pray/’ he was asked. ‘I listen.’ ‘And what does God say to you?’ ‘He says, ‘You are my beloved son.’

Today we are not asked to make fresh resolutions that we might well fail to keep, but are reminded that we too have been baptised into that divine life of the Father, that names the Son as the loved one in the power of the Spirit.

We are reminded that we are baptised in to the baptism of Christ, who rises from the waters of chaos, into new life, that new creation which is God’s will for all.

And we are reminded, as we shortly re-affirm the promises that we made, or that were made on our behalf, in response to the gift of baptism; we are reminded that that baptism is not ours alone – we are baptised into the death and life of Christ, and we are baptised alongside and together with Christians throughout the ages. Baptised together into that new creation that Christ enacts and makes possible.

This last year, in the face of the climate crisis, and CP26, we began to talk about what it might be to be a Regenerative Cathedral, a Cathedral whose mission was to live in that new creation that is found in Christ. And there is no better place to start that exploration and journey than here, in the baptism that sees Christ plunging into the depths of our need and chaos, to rise into that new creation which is founded on the relationship of love that is held out to each and all. And as we re-affirm our baptism into that new creation, so we begin that journey, once again, with Christ as he shows forth what that new creation, the kingdom, looks like and asks of us. Amen.

Midnight Mass – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway

Isaiah 52.7-10; John 1.1-14

I don’t know about you, but this has felt, among many other things, like a year of statistics. It has become almost a daily ritual to check the Covid rates in Edinburgh, and then to worry about hospitalisation rates, to compare infection rates across countries and continents even as we also read articles that tell us how difficult it is to statistically compare. It’s been a year of statistics for vaccine efficacy; for the rate of vaccine take-up; of the R number. And through it all, the statistic of the mounting number of those who have died within 28 days of a positive Covid test – 147,720 people in the UK as of yesterday. And the estimated 5.4 million people worldwide who have died from Covid since the pandemic started. Such numbers are almost unimaginable, do scarce justice to the reality: the danger with statistics is for the sheer size of the issue, the weight of humanity represented in these numbers, to be what distances us from what is happening for each of the people represented in those numbers; the sheer mass of numbers masks the particular story of each.

Tonight we celebrate the birth of one particular human being. In the midst of our current crisis and challenge, is there any reason to focus on this human life any more than any one of the other billions of humans who have populated, lived and died, on our planet? This child is not any more, or less, human than any of those many others, than you or me even.  Jesus, in the vulnerability that calls forth the love of Mary and Joseph, in the fact that he is immediately subject to the whims of forces and powers beyond his control, to the rage of Herod that forces him to flee with his family; in all that he is as human as the rest of us. And yet our faith proclaims that in this particular human life, the light shines and the darkness cannot overcome it. That does not make Jesus uniquely special in a way that no one else is: instead this human life reveals that this is the way God reaches out and loves each one of us– in the very depths of every particular human life. God does not love in the abstract, through the contemplation of statistics, but loves every human being unconditionally and equally. Jesus we proclaim reveals the divine in the human, to open that way to each and every human being, to each of us. We may struggle to comprehend the humanity behind the statistics – but God does not. For this is how God comes – in love to every particular, unique, special, wonderful, glorious, broken, human life.

God comes not as some ideal of peace and calm, or as the idea of love. God comes not in the form of a sermon on love or a treatise on peace. God comes into our reality as it is, however muddled and muddied it may be, like the stable at Bethlehem, with straw and cow dung. If Christmas is about an ideal then we are easily oppressed by it because we rarely live up to it (Christmas is supposed to be about peace and love, so why does my family irritate the hell out of me?). Or, as an ideal, we decide it’s not practical, and dismiss it as irrelevant and carry on regardless – as if the message of peace proclaimed at Christmas is simply some sentimentalized story to warm our hearts, and please the children, and therefore has little to say that will redeem our mess and muddle, our anxiety and fear.

But God does not come as an ideal: God comes not as a plea for world-peace; not as an insistence that you have a good time; not as the latest consumer product that life is incomplete without. God comes in a particular place, at a particular time, as a defenceless baby. The Word became flesh, and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.

The invitation of this night is for us to come and see, gaze upon God come among us and place that fact in the midst of our living, in the midst of any family squabbles and tensions, in the midst of our griefs and sorrows heightened by absence, in the midst of our anxiety and fear at the continuing pandemic.

To place God in the midst of all that – to gaze upon the Christ child born this night – is paradoxically, given our current predicament, to be brought into joy. Like the shepherds we are brought to rejoicing. This wee babe we welcome tonight, in all his unprotected vulnerability, like countless children before and since, has the capacity to break hearts, to breach our defences, unplug our wellsprings. Joy bubbles up this night – that is God’s gift we receive tonight, and everything is put in its place because joy bursts forth. The joy of Mary, as she forgets the pain and travail of birth, forgets the alien surroundings and the worries about tomorrow, and cradles her child close. Joy melts our hearts and makes living worthwhile – without it the present giving and receiving, the surplus of food, is strangely sterile and empty. God comes amongst us bringing joy. And from our joy flows our giving, our celebration, our peace-making – the gratuitous acts of people in love, delighting in our ability to mirror the gratuitous, gracious, unmerited overflowing of love that is God. This night, light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it.

God comes among us not as an ideal to admire, but fail to live up to, but as a child and a man who, in the midst of our brokenness, loves his people into joy, into resurrection life. Tonight we are not here to worship an ideal, but have come to be visited by joy, and to carry that joy into whatever mess and muddle, whatever anxiety and grief, is ours, so that stumblingly we too may offer our gestures of generous joy. For God’s resurrection joy and life is unconquerable, and it is revealed as with us this night. To celebrate Christmas is to celebrate the God who comes, not in the general ideal, or the vague sentiment, but in a particular human life – a particular human life born in that stable long ago; and because of that human life, we now realise, God comes to meet us in love in every particular human life. In you and me, and every one of our neighbours. Amen.

Advent 3 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 12th December

Zephaniah 3.14-20; Philippians 4.4-7; Luke 3.7-18

This 3rd Sunday in Advent is sometimes known as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete comes from the Latin for Rejoice. And our first two readings certainly pick up that cue: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice, says Paul in his letter to the Philippians. Sing aloud, says Zephaniah, Rejoice and exult with all your heart. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. Zephaniah, from the midst of his own grim present, invites his readers to rejoice in the promised future. Gaudete Sunday is a moment of rejoicing within the solemnity of Advent, as we anticipate that promised future.

And then, into this invitation to rejoice, comes striding the figure of John the Baptist. Like the crowds, in our Gospel reading, flocking to the banks of the Jordan to catch the latest thing, abuzz perhaps with excitement, we are suddenly confronted with John’s anger and directness. ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’

John is an uncomfortable figure. He’s often described as the last of the OT prophets, living on the edge of civilization, in the wilderness. He seems beholden to no-one, free to speak truth, fiery words that address our darkness. He puts into practice the judgement of which he speaks. And, I suspect, we do recognize, even yearn for, that kind of figure – the one railing against corruption, expressing our anger at the world, the darkness that this week, as ever, presses in on us. We all know something of that anger – at those who think the rules are not for them. John expresses our  rage against hypocrisy, against injustice and inaction. And our anger, we hope will, like that of  John the Baptist, cut through the darkness, convict our politicians, and our vacuous celebrity obsessed age, issue a wake up call to those who simply lash out without thought except to administer poisonous bites: ‘You brood of vipers.’

It’s a tempting role; one that the church is often invited to fulfill: to stand in judgement on society, wag our finger disapprovingly, or shake our head disappointedly, as we reflect on society going to the dogs. That’s what church is about isn’t it?

Tempting as that is – this week especially – I think that gets both John and our calling wrong. Certainly in Luke’s account that we just heard in our Gospel, the anger is there: alongside the description of his hearers as a brood of vipers, he informs them that even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ Such fiery words draw a crowd, gets him noticed, but when John begins to address those who come to him, what he advocates is far from extreme. ‘What shall we do?’ they ask. And John invites them to act, here and now in the present. He addresses the situation of each that comes to him, encouraging a culture of generosity (sharing cloaks and food); of fairness and decency, so that we are not concerned simply with acquisition but know when we have enough. It’s a call into responsible living, finding some meaning and purpose in what lies in front of us. The anger gives way to something else.

And famously and above all, John points away from himself to the one who is coming. For John, the one who is coming is the one who will execute judgment, put things right, and so we better get ready. Luke’s gospel, in this early chapter, sets up our expectation: this is what the coming Christ is about, Jesus will execute that judgement that John, and we, look for. But as Luke’s Gospel will go on to show, the one who comes will subvert that judgement, will not simply point the finger and rage at the world. Instead of executing God’s wrath, he will reveal the anger and violence for what it is, by taking the violence on himself – the One who comes is not the bringer of violence, however seemingly justified, but its recipient. Jesus’ ultimate journey will reveal violence to be what we do to love, not the way God is.

So, as we wait this Advent, John rightly reminds us to wake up, and his call into responsible living, still resonates. And we need to follow his pointing finger, not pointing in judgement, but at the one who will come, to subvert all our fantasies, above all, the fantasy that it is simply other people who are the problem, that pointing the finger is enough.

Advent is often described as the season of waiting. That can make it sound a very passive season, perhaps in contrast to the dashing around in preparation for Christmas that many of us are engaged in. The French verb for ‘waiting’ is ‘attendre’, from which we get our words, to attend, attention. If our waiting is about attending to something, paying attention, what will you attend to this week? If what I am suggesting about John is right, then, even in the darkness, even as we rage and know our anger, we wait, we attend, to something that subverts that darkness. The light that the darkness will not master is coming, so let us pay attention, or we will miss the reason for rejoicing. ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice.’ Let us find space for the coming outbreak of cleansing joy.

God our healer, whose mercy is like a refining fire,
touch us with your judgement,
and confront us with your tenderness;
that, being comforted by you,
we may reach out to a troubled world,
through Jesus Christ, Amen.

Feast of Christ the King – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 21st November

Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14; Revelation 1.4b-8; John 18.33b-37

Today we celebrate the final Sunday of the Church’s year, the Feast of Christ the King. It’s the climax of our year’s pilgrimage, from the anticipation, and then the birth of, Christ, at Advent and Christmas; through the mystery of Christ’s life, and death and resurrection that finds its focus at Easter; and then through the long season of Pentecost as we learn what it might mean to walk that way ourselves in the power of the Spirit. And so to this climax of the year, as Christ is proclaimed as King: our readings from Daniel and Revelation rejoice in the setting to right, the drawing into worship of all creation, that is at the heart of the King and his kingdom that we proclaim today.

And yet, and yet, in our Gospel reading, under Pilate’s questioning, Jesus quite pointedly deflects, refuses even, the title of King. It’s a gospel that places a question mark, at the very least, against any easy triumphalist acclamation of Jesus as King; certainly against our usual ways of understanding that title: ‘So you are a King?’ Pilate asks Jesus. And Jesus answers: ‘You say that I am a king.’

We are taken back, in our Gospel reading, to that moment of extreme conflict and brooding violence, in the early hours of Good Friday, as Jesus stands before the authority who will decide his immediate fate. And he is given an opportunity to defend and justify himself: ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ asks Pilate.

And in that place of conflict and brooding violence and powerful authority, Jesus does two things, which place that question mark at the heart of what we celebrate today. First of all, Jesus asks Pilate where he stands. He asks the one who apparently has the authority at this moment, to give an account of himself. ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Why do you care, asks Jesus. For to all intents and purposes, Jesus is clearly not a King in any way that makes any sense to Pilate, or to us. Here he stands, helpless, friendless, deserted by his followers. And yet, from a deep well of courage and conviction, he throws the question back at the one cloaked with the authority and power: where do you stand, what’s in this for you?

And Jesus then goes on to say something even more radical to the uncomprehending Pilate: ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’

Not from this world – in this place of conflict, Jesus identifies himself as being from somewhere other-worldly. It’s a common accusation thrown against those who come at things from a faith perspective – that we are just being other-worldly, and it’s not usually a compliment. But here, it is the hard-edged reason for Jesus’ refusal to get involved in the conflict on the usual terms: ‘If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.’ But Jesus isn’t going to get drawn into that fight; instead, he draws strength from a place that is not from here; he is subject to a different set of rules and demands.

In a world which constantly seeks us to take sides, get drawn in, arm ourselves, define ourselves as not like them, Jesus points to a kingdom not from here. Faith is characterized as the practice of going to that place, that kingdom not from here, which resources and strengthens us; it is that travelling together in the company of others who strengthen and renew us; it is the practice of prayer and self-discipline, that equips us with power that is not from here. ‘For this I was born, and for this I came into the world,’ says Jesus, ‘to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’

Pilate famously dismisses that claim: ‘What is truth?’ he exclaims. To the one who trades in the might of the sword and empire, truth is simply the wielding of that power and authority. Pilate ends the exchange uncomprehending; and the friendless, helpless prisoner before him makes his way to the cross. But we gather here as those who do listen to his voice, who gather as subjects of that kingdom that is not from here. We listen to that voice even as he makes his way into suffering. For the King we celebrate is found not robed in majesty, but walking the way of the cross; not wielding power and might, but offering himself for the life of the world. He asks his followers not to take up arms and fight on his side, but to follow him in finding the strength for acts of costly, forgiving and life-giving love. To be subjects of this kingdom, to listen to his voice, means growing in faith in the possibilities which that forgiving love open up; it is about being drawn into that kingdom not from here. That kingdom which on the far side of cross and resurrection, on the far side of costly forgiving love, is revealed as that which judges the uncomprehending and blustering power of Pilate, and Prime Minister; judges the preening power of might and authority found in different degrees in all of us, with the truth of forgiving love.

And so the question that the helpless, friendless, and yet faithful Jesus offers Pilate lies at the heart of our celebrations today: ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Where are you before this man; where am I before this man? Shall we trust in the might and power that is all too evident in the world around us? Or do we recognize our deepest truth in the journey this man makes, and so find our selves strengthened in his broken body and outpoured blood, strengthened by his kingdom not from here. Amen.

Pentecost 21- sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 17th October

Isaiah 53.4-12; Hebrews 5.1-10; Mark 10.35-45

One of the glories of this Cathedral building, something close to the heart of the vocation it embodies and enables, is the fact that it stands open, day after day. Open to people’s prayer and desire for sanctuary; open as an antidote and response to the bustling world around; open to their need as well as their curiosity and wonder. Of course that means that all sorts of people pass through those doors, seeking to satisfy a variety of needs. For those of us who work here that can be both a delight and a challenge. Inevitably those needs include the need to talk, to be affirmed, to seek counsel, and to ask for money to sort a problem. To be open to all that, to navigate our way through those needs and find the appropriate response is an ongoing challenge, but it’s also a small window on to the needs which press in on people day after day, the stresses and strains we live under.

Now I don’t want to claim too much in that – others are far more intimately and daily involved in the stresses and strains of life, in seeking to serve the needs of others, and they know a lot more about the costliness of that. NHS workers, for example, particularly through the pandemic, are challenged daily by pressing needs, and by the challenge of navigating, prioritising, through those. This Cathedral exists also to resource and strengthen those people – you – in that service of others in our healthcare, and many other, settings.

And that brings us to Sir David Amess, and his shocking death on Friday. For he died in active service, in the process of serving his constituents through the public surgery he, and many other politicians hold, week after week, to meet the public that, in all their needs, they are called to serve. His shocking death, without indulging the need to speculate on the particular motives of his killer, must make us wonder if the effort to serve is worth it, or at the very least if there are different ways to organise ourselves; insulate ourselves from those needs in what seems an increasingly fractious, hate-filled world.

Our Gospel reading for this morning offers a jarringly appropriate text to contemplate: You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

Jesus’ response to the disciples as they argue among themselves, about who is the most important, who will get the best seats in the house. Jesus turns our usual way of thinking on its head. And we continually need to be reminded of that truth: David Amess’ death, and the manner of it, reminds us that that service lies at the heart of a functioning democracy. But that reminder is trumpeted by a media that simultaneously exalts the lifestyle of the rich and famous, those who lord it over others by their very manner of life. The supposed freedom of not being beholden to anyone is so often vaunted as the highest good, and so we need the continual reminder that, as Jesus, puts it, it shall not be so among you. And democracy, in all its messiness and challenge, embodies that service, our boundedness, one to another, so that we are not subjects of rulers and tyrants, who lord it over us, but participants in a common life over which we have some say and responsibility.

The final words of Jesus go even further however, in addressing how we might react to death, and suffering – both Sir David’s, but also that in life more generally. For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and give his life a ransom for many.

A ransom is that which is given to gain release, freedom, for many. That terminology and language has given rise to much metaphysical speculation about to whom that ransom is paid, and how that is effective in giving freedom to many. If the statement is taken literally, you get into a debate about whether the ransom is paid to God – in which case, why does God need to be paid, especially when the price is the life of God’s Son; or the devil – but how does that work, that this life, somehow pays off the devil, and releases the rest of us.

As is often the case, especially when dealing with religious language, the literal reading can be the enemy of what is being offered as a metaphor, an imaginative understanding. For beyond the immediate question of what is being paid in this offering of a life, and to whom, is the bigger question of the senselessness and meaninglessness of suffering and death.

For the disciples, and the early church, this question is focused in the figure of Jesus Christ. The impact, the startling insightfulness and effectiveness of his life, bring the question of the meaning of his brutal, senseless death, into even sharper relief. What sense can be made of this death, and does it not render everything that went before meaningless. His short life is brutally brought short by the rulers and tyrants of his age – is that not a final statement about where power truly lies, so that what preceded is rendered worthless?

Christ’s resurrection begins to turn that despair around; it shifts the disciples’ faith and perception, so that the previously meaninglessness and futility of Christ’s death, is suddenly seen in a new light. But they still have to make sense of it, find the words to describe that faith, and experience, that his shameful death by the exercise of brute power, is not the end. And that takes them back to one of the oldest human questions: why do we suffer? They find that question explored in their own scriptures – Isaiah 53 that we heard as our Old Testament reading is a classic articulation of the possibility that suffering might be the working out of redemption, an offering toward that good which is our final end and salvation.

I am not suggesting that David Amess’ death is on a par with Christ’s. But Christian faith, after the crucifixion and resurrection, sees suffering and death in a different light; sees the possibility that such suffering participates in that which frees us. And inasmuch as Sir David’s death brings into focus the centrality of service to our common life; as it displays that what we have in common is far more than what divides us; as it enables us to celebrate, even, that life of service, then it reveals that that is what endures, and begins to answer the senselessness, and the nihilism of the brutal act that led to his death. Such violence will not define us; instead suffering and even death can contribute toward our freedom from the rule of violence and force; and lead us into that service which binds us, and completes us, one with another.

In a moment we will participate in an act that week by week, recalls, remembers, the death of Christ – his sharing of his body and blood, himself, for the life of others. We are drawn into that resurrection faith, which knows full well the depth of suffering, of cruelty and hate. And yet, through participation, we are re-made as the Body of Christ to offer our service to the world – to be open to the transformation of suffering in resurrection life. Amen.