Pentecost 3 (Proper 8) – John Conway, Provost – 30/06/19

(1Kings 19.15-16, 19-21; Galatians 5.1, 13-25; Luke 9.51-62)

He gave answers to questions they didn’t ask

sometimes they didn’t dare

open their mouths anymore

not because they hadn’t understood

he was taking from them

everything sacred and safe

he offered no guarantees

Fire was not sacred to him or neon

not singing or silence

not fornication or chastity

in his speech foxes bread leaven

and much mended nets became sacred

the down and out were his proof

and actually he had as much assurance

of victory as we in these parts do


That poem by Dorothee Solle, a wonderful post-war German theologian and mystic, from her set of poems, When He came, captures something of the uncompromising, urgent Jesus that we encounter in today’s Gospel reading. A Jesus on the move: ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. Follow me.’ Are you attracted? Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem, we are told, and an urgency now characterizes him – almost shocking in its brusqueness: ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ – ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’

Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem, he journeys towards the pain, the conflict, the disturbance that await him there. And he seems only to invite others to join him in that single-mindedness

That stark invitation may seem at first to be at odds with our reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians this morning. ‘For freedom Christ has set us free,’ Paul declares. ‘Stand firm therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters.’ That call to freedom might seem in contrast to Jesus’ insistence that ‘no one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ Are we not free to do as we like?

To see Paul’s evocation of freedom as being in tension with Jesus’ call to discipleship is, however, to misunderstand the nature of the freedom in which Paul believes we stand.

To understand that crucial notion of freedom – such a loaded word for us in the West of course – I think the writings of a French anthropologist, Renee Girard, are immensely helpful. Girard’s writings are complex, but at the heart of his understanding of human society, and religion, lies what he calls mimetic desire. Girard argues that our desires, what we find ourselves longing for, what we imagine we want out of life, such desires do not come out of nowhere. Nor are they simply the expression of a free heart. Rather there is something about how human beings are, that makes us desire what we see our neighbour’ s desiring. We learn what we desire through imitating those around us. That is what Girard means by Mimetic desire, from the Greek word mimesis, meaning reflection. What we long for is a reflection of, learnt from, the longings and desires of the society we find ourselves within. The most obvious example of this, with which many of us will be familiar is when you observe two children playing. One child rediscovers a long forgotten toy, buried deep in some toy box. As she gets the toy out to begin to play with it, the other child notices – suddenly the toy, which a moment before had been of no significance to either child, becomes the must-have plaything. The second child cannot, all of a sudden, live without it – and he will swear blind that he’s been longing to find it for weeks. We learn what we desire from the desire of those around us – and the belief that that only happens in childhood, is quickly dispelled if you observe the power exerted by keeping up with the Joneses, or the pull of celebrity culture, or the way that the latest technology exerts a strange fascination for us. Our desires, the longings of our heart, what we imagine we need to be free, is actually a reflection, is shaped by those around us. Our expressions of individuality, our cherished freedom, is far more a product of group-think than we care to admit.

Girard’s further, and crucial point, however, is that because what we desire is shaped by the desire of those around us, we necessarily find ourselves competing for the same thing. Just like the two children will end up in an almighty squabble over the newly-discovered toy, so we end up thinking that, in a world of finite resources, we need to guard what we have, guard what will inevitably be the object of others’ desire. Our mimetic desires inevitably lead, argues Girard, to repressed, or sometimes open, violence: competition over the shared objects of desire. Societies find ways, says Girard, to unite us in the midst of that violent competition: usually by turning that repressed violence outwards onto a scapegoat; we avoid fighting with our neighbours by turning on those identified as outsiders. We become united by turning on them, thus avoiding the conflict which our mimetic desire provokes with our neighbour.

There is not time in a sermon to do full justice to Girard’s complex and suggestive thinking, but I hope I have indicated enough to put all our usual ideas of freedom into question. Freedom is so often characterized as about our liberation, about being able to express ourselves however we want. Girard’s point is that once we are aware of how such desire is shaped by others, and of the competing violence that that gives rise to, it no longer looks much like freedom. And the one who makes us aware of all that, says Girard, is the one who refused to unite people by playing ‘us’ off against ‘them’: is this Jesus, who steadfastly walks into the heart of our violence, and takes the place of the scapegoat, bears on himself the violence we usually unleash on the marginal, the outsider, the foreigner; on ‘them,’ who are not like ‘us.’ Jesus, in his crucifixion, reveals the scapegoat mechanism even as, in his resurrection, he reveals the deeper reality of forgiving love. For it is in that forgiving love, in a desire shaped by his abiding in the Father, as the Father abides in him, in that forgiving love that Jesus walks toward Jerusalem. It is in that forgiving, non-competitive love that he is free, free from mimetic desire and its competitive violence. And it is into that freedom that we are invited. Not, as Paul says, a freedom that sets us apart from one another, an opportunity for self-indulgence; but through love, says Paul, become slaves to one another.

And he then hammers home the point: that it is two accounts of freedom that are in view here. The first is freedom that gratifies the desires of the flesh, desires shaped by what the world values around us: a freedom, as it is so often characterized, to do what we want, to live without limits or constraints, with the pleasure-seeking self at its heart. Such ‘freedom’, Paul argues, results in enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy – as well as the more usual suspects listed as sins of the flesh. Against that understanding of freedom is the freedom given as gift, given in the abiding of God in the human heart, so that we begin to be shaped by that reality of God’s abiding presence rather than by mimetic desire. Such freedom is not found in endless choice, or liberation to be whatever we want, but in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity – in those things that make us slaves to one another, bound together rather than competing; freedom in commitment, in engagement, in the laying down and the picking up of mantles. Freedom not, as it is so often characterised, with a certain wistfulness, found in un-commitment, in not being tied, but the freedom of finding a ‘home’ on the way, a task to do, a self discovered not through the relentless acquisition of ‘experiences’ or possessions, but known in relationships, in all their give and take, their laying down and picking up. Freedom found as Paul paradoxically puts it in the bondage of love.

Our Eucharistic prayer will shortly declare that Jesus ‘broke the bonds of evil and set your people free to be his Body in the world.’ We are freed in our common sharing to be Christ’s body in our world; learning in community that new freedom to which all are called.

As St Augustine put it:  Eternal God, the light of the minds that know you, the joy of the hearts that love you, and the strength of the wills that serve you: grant us so to know you that we may truly love you, and so to love you that we may fully serve you, whose service is perfect freedom in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


Easter VII – John Conway – Sunday 2nd June

(Acts 16.16-34; Revelation 22.12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17.20-26)

‘One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl.’ So starts the strange extraordinary story from the book of Acts that was our first reading this week. As we were going to the place of prayer. As ever, it’s the small details that reveal much. This is a story framed by prayer; on their way to pray, Paul and Silas encounter a slave-girl, a woman defined by her bondage, her imprisonment by the men who make money out of her. This is a story about prayer, and about freedom, or the lack of it.

Last Sunday, as the Cathedral embarked on a Festival of prayer, joining with Christians across the world in praying, Thy Kingdom Come, we were encouraged by John, our Vice-Provost, to discover, through prayer, our heart as the meeting place with God; the place of God’s abiding, overcoming our fear and kindling us into love. As our Gospel put it this morning: ‘I in them, and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.’

Our reading from Acts is a vivid illustration of what that abiding in God as God abides in us looks like; how prayer might shape our living. One day, as they are going to the place of prayer, Paul and Silas meet a slave girl, a woman who makes a great deal of money for others through fortune telling. Such fortune telling relies on a belief that the future is fixed, determined – it is the antithesis to a faith in the possibility of freedom, faith that the future is open, to be shaped by our collective response. This woman, herself not free, owned and a money maker for others, offering fake news to gullible people desperate for certainty about the future; this woman becomes fascinated by Paul and his friends, and begins to follow them everywhere. You sense that she is perturbed: abused by her owners, she sees in these men of prayer something different at work. Paul, somewhat exasperated by her haunting of them, orders the spirit of divination, of fortune telling, out of her.

However we might understand that exchange, something shifts. The woman herself disappears from the story – wahtever Paul has accomplished, to her previous owners, her liberation from fortune telling, means a fall in their fortune making. Their hope of making money from her is gone, and they are furious.

And so, even as she is set free (we hope), the money men force a role reversal: Paul and Silas are themselves imprisoned, thrown in to jail by magistrates in cahoots with the money men, and there they are stripped naked, beaten, put in the innermost cell, their feet fastened in the stocks. And there, at midnight, at the darkest hour, we find them ‘praying and singing hymns to God.’ Who is bound? Who is free?

And at this darkest hour, ‘suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken: and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chanins unfastened.’ This is a story of dramatic reversals – where those we think are bound and chanied are suddenly free, and those who think themselves free are suddenly revealed as imprisoned. It might be tempting to think the earthquake is some sort of divine intervention – it certainly has a miraculous quality to it. And yet the text is silent on the cause of the earthquake. It just is; it’s the circumstance that helps reveal what the text is really interested in – who is bound, who is free?

The immediate effect is that the jailer whose job it is to ensure that the prisoners remain locked up, is beside himself, and draws a sword to kill himself, supposing his prisoners have escaped. Because if you were the fortunate beneficiaries of an earthquake, why wouldn’t you? And he, the enforcer of the magistrates rule of fear, has failed. But his prisoners, who he imagines have leapt to their freedom, instead call out to their jailer: ‘Do not harm yourself for we are all here.’ Here is freedom; here is the abiding presence of God, in this act of selflessness and relationship forming. It brings the jailer to his knees, and then to faith. ‘He brought them outside’, out of the prison that they were never in, and he then asks: ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved.’ And so this jailer is brought too to the place of freedom; into the company of those who can sing and pray even when the world is at its darkest. And in their company he forges new bonds of friendship and love: ‘he took them and washed their wounds, brought them up into the house and set food before them. And he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.’

‘Christians are formed by the way in which they pray.’ This Cathedral is fundamentally a place of prayer, we are a people of prayer. This week, this Festival of prayer is an opportunity to journey deeper into that reality and truth. In a world so often defined by who makes money from whom, by a culture of imprisonment and fear; where we can be tempted to think the future is fixed and determined and we know who the winners are; prayer is about the journey into a different kind of freedom. The freedom that sings songs in the darkness, that acts in selfless, surprising ways, that forges bonds of faith, that knows the abiding presence of God in each human heart. Who is bound? Who is free?


Easter III – John Conway – 5th May 2019

(Acts 9.1-20; John 21.1-19)

In the name of God, creating, redeeming and sustaining. Amen.

‘The greatness of the great Christian saints lies in their readiness to be questioned, judged, stripped naked and left speechless by that which lies at the centre of their faith.’ That is a quote from Rowan William’s wonderful exploration of the Christian mystics – The Wound of Knowledge. It sums up what links our two readings this morning – the conversion of Saul, soon to be Paul; and the re-conversion, the resurrection of Peter.

You may remember that back in January I offered you an imagining, from Peter’s point of view, of his first meeting with Jesus – his initial call by the lakeside after a night’s fishing. Today’s gospel returns us to that same place – Peter, after the events of Holy Week is back fishing. Let us too return and imagine what that encounter might feel like.

Peter said:

In my case there was no flash of light. No voices from the sky. It’s typical of Paul that his encounter should be dramatic, flinging him to the ground, blinding him. Me, my life was changed on a quiet, calm morning, after I thought all the fuss was over, when I had run away to hide and forget.

The seven of us had gone fishing. Back to what we knew best, what came easily. We worked through the night, the darkness enveloping us, smothering the need to talk, to make sense of what had happened. We could just be together, coping in our separate ways. The memory of Jerusalem, of that extraordinary week of conflict and death, and, and of, well, something more, could recede here among the familiar nets, the easy swing of them overboard, the fruitless search for fish. Here, I could almost ignore the uneasy voice that told me everything was different now, that the familiar could now no longer be enough, the be all and end all. That something more did rankle, even here, amongst the smells of rotting fish and faded dreams.

Early morning is a strange time when you’ve been fishing all night: of course you’re exhausted – particularly when you’ve caught nothing – and yet the dawn light can hardly fail to move you. The inexorable cycle of light breaking up the darkness, to be swallowed up again in turn in darkness. But at dawn, mystery is near, the world is hopeful. It was at daybreak the stranger appeared and told us to try fishing on the other side of the boat – told us, who had fished all our lives – but it was dawn, and the sky was painting the lake with fresh colour and warmth, so, because it was dawn and to humour the man as much as anything, we cast the nets once more, tired shoulders heaving. When the nets bulged and pulled, that’s when the familiar suddenly began to be invaded with other memories, other questions and longings. All that I had struggled to forget, in my shame and confusion, suddenly began to return, to haunt and disturb me. ‘It is the Lord’ someone shouted in my ear, and my heart leapt. Love triumphed at that moment – I knew that to be with him once more was my heart’s desire. But not naked. The events of the previous weeks had stripped me bare, left me without protection. I had betrayed him, when I had vehemently said I would not; I had deserted him when he was most at need. To be with him again was joy indeed, but not naked, not unprotected. So I pulled on my clothes, and then dived overboard – I had to be the first to reach him.

We came in with nets bulging – every species known to us seemed to be there, glistening in the rising sun. But Jesus had already got a fire going, with fish and bread to eat on it; the kind of meal we would have had shortly, gathering round the fire to assess the night’s fishing, make plans for the coming days, pass time in small talk. But it was different now. Memories stirred: us, and him, eating together once more, like that time in the Upper Room. But that was in Jerusalem, the holy city, when all was supercharged, when we had no idea what the future held, but the world seemed to be our oyster even with the rumours of the plotting of the authorities and Jesus’ own reluctance to evade them. Now we were gathered around a small fire, by the lake, amongst the familiar debris of fishing. This was not Jerusalem where the important things happen. And yet, once more he was breaking bread, bringing us together, stilling the small talk, sharing himself.

And then it happened. No blinding light; simply, after breakfast, he took me off by myself as the sun rose, the heat of the day beginning.

‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ Once the answer would have been automatic. I took pride in being the most loyal, the eager one. But now, how could I boast, take pride? And yet, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’

And again, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Again, he addressed me with my old name, Simon. Not the new name of Peter, the Rock, the name that he had gifted me – of that I had proved unworthy – the rock had turned to quicksand. I was back to being Simon, all else was delusion, pride before the fall. ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ How else could I answer?

And again, and by now my pulse was beating hard – no need to remind me of the significance of that third question, I who had betrayed him not once, nor twice, but three times. ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Now I was stripped bare, no hiding place left. ‘Lord you know everything’ – you know that I betrayed you and deserted you, and that I don’t know how to cope with you coming back from the dead. I thought you were buried and gone, and that I would have to deal with my hurt and anger at myself as best I could – probably by taking refuge in this fishing, hoping that that would numb the pain and the ache – but now it’s not so simple. For you are not dead and buried, but amongst us, sharing yourself again in bread broken. So yes Lord, you know everything, and despite it all, in the midst of the hurt and brokenness – ‘you know that I love you.’

And then I finally heard it – not the repeated question but the repeated response and instruction. Not words of condemnation or reproach, of blame or inquest. He was not wanting my guilt or remorse, but to offer the gift of new life: ‘Feed my lambs – tend my sheep – feed my sheep.’ And something in me died, for the familiar rhythms of fishing could no longer comfort me, and my cherished ideal of being proved the hero also finally withered under that three times repeated question, but at the same moment something burst into life. I did not have to be someone else; I did not have to forget and bury the past. My broken, betraying humanity was enough, a crucible fit for that gift of new life, new calling. I loved him, and that was enough, and would take me where he needed me to go. And so he left me, with simply the whispered instruction, ‘follow me’, going as quietly as he had arrived. The heat of the day soon passed; night drew in again enveloping all. But the fire within me burned on, unquenched.

As I say for Paul it was all very different. And yet, and yet, don’t let the outward appearances deceive you. For both of us died in our encounter with the Risen Christ. Both of us were stripped of all that clothed and protected us, taken to a place we would rather not go – me to the prison of my memories, he – who had wielded the power of death over Christians – made blind and powerless, led like a child, waiting for a fearful, brave old man who would restore him, give him his new name and the gift of the Holy Spirit. It was hardly painless – the gift of new life was born in the vulnerability of our old ways dying. And the new life we were gifted took us to places we would not have dared imagine. He said it to me himself before he left: ‘When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ And yet that final death, that final loss of control, will not defeat me. For I have already been crucified with him, and in his resurrection, I have already risen to new life in him. And that gift means I am no longer trapped in my past of betrayal and failure, nor dreaming of being the hero I will never become, but simply living for the sake of the world, not myself. And that is a gift none can take away, wherever I am led.


Easter Sunday – John Conway – 21/04/19

(John 20.1-18)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Yeats’ famous lines from his poem The Second Coming, have apparently enjoyed a second wind themselves in recent years – often quoted as people have tried to describe and understand the times we live. They sprang to mind, as I thought about how to describe this moment, this Easter moment in which resurrection is encountered, and proclaimed.

It is perhaps no surprise that it is these words that resonate in our present, words written a century ago in 1919, in the exhausted, disillusioned and fearful aftermath of the 1stWorld War, when that awful clash of nations had burst the bubble of optimism felt in the early years of the century, and people feared that there was more violence to come, that a vacuum had been created into which the populist demagogues would step and whip up passion: Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Words for our times indeed. Particularly as we hear today of acts of unspeakable violence and cruelty in churches and hotels across Sri Lanka. Whatever our sense of the particular reasons for the times we live in, we are familiar with the fear and dread that Yeats evokes – a sense that the old ways of ordering the world are coming apart, and we don’t know what is next. We lack conviction, and we fear and suspect that those full of passionate but shallow intensity are even now sweeping up and making the future.

And it is in that context that we also hear the question, twice addressed to Mary Magdalene in our Easter Gospel this morning: Woman, why are you weeping? Why are you weeping?

For Mary’s world has of course fallen apart, violence has been loosed on the ceremony of innocence that Jesus enacted. And like women throughout the ages, she is left trying to pick up the pieces, and hold it together. She has come to tend the body of her friend, anoint and care for it, offer the rituals of comfort to ease her grief and pain.

And we too are tempted to respond to anxious times with the comforting rituals of the familiar, with expressions of tenderness towards those we know. We lament the state of the world, but we often respond by doing what we can do, faithfully, tenderly even, like Mary coming to anoint the dead.

But that is not what resurrection is. In our Gospel Mary meets an absence – what she seeks is not there, the comfort she seeks to bring and to find, is denied her. Instead angels, strange figures mark the place of absence – one at the head, the other at the feet. In John’s account what greets Mary when she looks in the tomb is the space between two angels: one sitting where the head of Jesus should have been, one where his feet should have been. In Old Testament depictions of the throne of God, angels sit on either side of the presence of God. Here they sit on either side of a surprising absence, which overthrows Mary. Woman why are you weeping? The angels ask. She is weeping because her confusion is deepened, and the one thing she thought she could do in this situation is not possible – he is not there, his body is gone.

And then, as she stumbles out into the garden, Jesus himself, no corpse to tend, but a living person, stands unrecognised before her, and he too asks her, Woman, why are you weeping?

Why are you weeping? Because the times are fearful and we are troubled. Even the familiar, the expected is not as it should be, is strange.

The gospels are full of markers of the way Jesus fulfils the Old Testament scriptures. His birth and ministry, his teaching and even his dying, are understood in patterns drawn from the scriptures – they are graspable through terms that are familiar. But in all the resurrection narratives that phrase, ‘to fulfill the scriptures’ is never used. The resurrection is surprising, initially ungraspable, radically new.

And we stand, on this Easter Day, in that tradition: the tradition of disciples who, like Mary, receive the gift of the radical, surprising, new thing God is doing in our midst. That is why, when Christians claim that tradition demands that you keep doing the same thing over and over, they are betraying their own tradition. The tradition we inhabit tells us that here is God’s presence known: in the surprising absence of what we thought would bring us comfort; in the surprising presence of a forgiving, wounded Saviour.

It cannot be said often enough that the resurrection does not right the wrong, undo the crucifixion. Rather it is the gift of surprising hope, the refusal of closure at the scene of crucifixion, at the scene of betrayal and dashed hopes.

For our Good News, our gospel, is not about neat endings, about tying up the loose ends of the story, about happily ever after and all that – no matter how much we long for that. The Gospel is not interested in closure, but in keeping the story going. The resurrection is the invitation to Mary and to you and to me, to us together, to take the story in new and surprising directions by seeing, and then being, that forgiving presence we meet in Jesus. Our gospels end not with closure, for the disciples or for us, but with invitation.

So, why are you weeping? As this stranger names her, “Mary”, so she recognises and is given the gift of resurrection. It is as if she hears her name for the first time, and yet knows it is absolutely her, and that there is only one person who could name her in this way. In knowing herself named, she knows that the man before her is Christ, is the one she came to weep over. Here is the presence of him who Mary had thought gone. Here is a centre to hold onto; where things had threatened to fall apart; here the fragments are knit together into a living presence that re-names her.

Why are you weeping? In this quiet garden, Mary and we receive the gift of resurrection to take away our tears – receive a living presence to ground us, a centre that re-gathers the scattered fragments of our lives together, a conviction to steer us through our times of inequality and need, of looming climate chaos and the challenge of different patterns of living. Here is life beyond death, beyond suffering and the violence and betrayals of our world. The resurrection, the gift of this day, is what lifts us out of our familiar routines, however tenderly we may enact them. “Do not cling to me”, says the Risen Jesus. The resurrection gives us new purpose, new energy – as Mary runs to proclaim to the disciples – I have seen the Lord. So, go, be not fearful, refuse to be simply comforted, for the Lord of love is not dead but alive and he re-names you here. Go and proclaim, in word and deed, that suffering and fear and violence have not won, and shall not win. In His presence, we are re-made and hope is born anew. For Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia.


Good Friday Reflection – John Conway – 19/04/19

They shall look on him whom they pierced. John 19.37

On Good Friday we have to reckon with the statement, that appears in all the Gospels in one way or another, that the death, the crucifixion, of Jesus is chosen, is anticipated by him and even necessary. The Gospels talk of Judas’ betrayal, and that might indicate that without the actions of Judas, another end for Jesus was possible, but to focus on that betrayal, as the cause and reason for Jesus’ death, is to contradict much else that is said – about Jesus deliberately setting his face toward Jerusalem, being clear about what awaited him there, and nevertheless choosing, it being God’s will that he should walk that road.

To talk of it being God’s will brings us close to what many Christians down the centuries, although not all, have wanted to say – that the necessity for this act, this death, lies in God. God wills it because God’s justice demands it it is sometimes said. The death of Christ, the offering of himself on humanity’s behalf, is to satisfy the Father, make right a relationship that is broken – broken, for sure, by humanity’s fall, but in need of repair because God is God. And so the solution to the problem is God sending his Son to die in our place, to offer himself for us, and so make things right.

There are many reasons why I think that understanding of the cross needs to be questioned, pushed back against, but that is for another time. The aspect that has been nagging away at me during Lent, however, is that understanding, the clear articulation in our Gospels, that Jesus walks toward his death in uncompromising fashion – his face is set. And nothing, not even the understandable doubts and agonies of Gethsemane, or the pleadings of his disciples, will deflect him from this course. And that way of understanding Jesus’ walk to the cross has nagged away at me during Lent because I, like many others, have spent much of the last few months praying for those in positions of power in our divided and fractious country, to have the humility to compromise, to be flexible enough to appreciate that there are different ways of viewing things, to find new and creative ways through the political messes we find ourselves in. And so my prayer has been questioned, put in doubt, by the simultaneous seemingly implacable walk to the cross of Jesus. He appears little interested in compromise, or finding a middle way, or in reconciliation with the powers and authorities of his day.

They shall look on him whom they pierced.

Alongside the insistence that this death is chosen, is God’s will, however, lies another insight from our Gospels. In the first part of our Gospels, Jesus is the initiator, the maker of the story – he moves around the countryside in a blaze of healings, and insightful teaching, and generous, gratuitous, feeding. Here is the Word, the giver of life, coming among his people in all the creative energy that we might expect. But as he makes that turn toward Jerusalem, walks this way into the midst of the gathering storm – a storm provoked and focused by his action – so things change. Jesus ceases to be the initiator, the man of action, but becomes the still centre of that gathering storm, the silent recipient of all that is now thrown at him. It is not that this walk to the cross is the walk of an uncompromising idealist; refusing to give up his principles no matter the cost. Jesus is not uncompromising in his following of his Father’s will. Rather, walking that path, means that he is deeply compromised – willing to take upon himself, be compromised by, what others will do to him, will do to that expression of God’s love in action.

They shall look on him whom they pierced. We shall look on him whom we pierced.

The cross is a place of brokenness, of ultimate vulnerability to the world, of weakness in the face of sin and death.

Today, in the stark reality of this man on a wooden cross, we meet an image that penetrates our stony exteriors, penetrates the protective layers with which we guard ourselves. It is an image that embodies, shows us, our own experiences of being broken, experiences that are often denied, well-hidden buried deep, or sometimes all too painfully present. Good Friday is about a moment of recognition – yes. Yes, I know suffering: my own, my neighbour’s, the suffering of our fragile earth. And yes – I have lived within that meaninglessness, that bewilderment at God, or even that total absence of God, that sense of nothingness embodied in Jesus’ despairing cry: ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’

But as well as recognition, an honesty about the reality and cost of suffering, the cross goes deeper as it names our betrayals, our collusion in, and causation of, the suffering of others; our place in the crowd, our standing alongside Peter in betraying all that we thought we held dear. To see this man compromised, put to death at our hands unmasks our pretensions of order, our desire to be in control and in the right: here is one who has lost control, who is utterly in the hands of others, who is done to; one who, even as his disciples flee and scatter, can only trust by placing his life in the hands of an absent God. And yet he is love, love incarnate, love embodied.

We shall look on him whom we pierced. And in that looking we are undone.

And as we are undone, so shall we be re-made. Our Easter faith is not simply a declaration that spring shall follow winter, not simply a celebration of light following darkness, Easter Sunday does not simply come after Good Friday like some unwritten law that good shall always come out of evil. 

It is as the cross uncovers our brokenness, our complicity, our weakness, our need for God, so we are healed. As we are drawn into that Christ-like movement of sacrificial self-offering, so we discover God at work within us and beyond us. This death of love incarnate, the Son walking that way of love in obedience to the Father who is love, asks us what is important, what is vital and true, where are we going and where have we come from. In becoming open to that insistent questioning of Good Friday, so we become the place of God’s redeeming work on Easter morn. Amen.


Lent 4 – John Conway – 31/03/19

2Corinthians 5.16-21; Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32

According to the Gospels (well, Mark, Luke and Matthew anyway), Jesus didn’t go in for sermons. It’s a fact that always puts a bit of a question mark next to this part of the service! Jesus did, however, tell stories. And we heard one of the most famous of them today.

So I could preach a sermon focusing on the prodigal son: the son who demands now, his share of the inheritance that belongs to him. He’s not prepared to wait, but then squanders that inheritance, is reduced to hiring himself out, a wreck of person, before coming to his senses, and traveling back home, expecting to beg for a servant’s lot, and then surprised by the welcome and forgiveness from his father. There are plenty of sermons that encourage us to identify with that journey – the journey to find ourselves back home, and not just home but greeted by the surprising welcome of our father – a feast thrown to welcome our return.

Or I could preach a sermon not so much focusing on the prodigal – for like the first hearers, isn’t the point that we aren’t always those who’ve wandered off and squandered everything. We perhaps more often identify with older son – looking askance at the behaviour of his brother, and the behaviour of his Father. That sermon might ask if the older son doesn’t have a point – articulating the truth that most parents know that spoiling a child is a potential path to ruin. It’s a sermon that might tease out the tension between justice (what is right and fair) and mercy, the act of gratuitous, unmerited forgiveness. That’s a real tension, and the story is open-ended, the reconciliation between the brothers (as well as the older son and the father) is incomplete – we’re left wondering how the older brother will react to the Father’s invitation to join the feast, and how we might react.

But perhaps the sermon would help us think more deeply about God (the Father). For surely the story implies that this is what God is like. God, the one whose mercy breaks down the walls of both our foolishness and our self-righteousness. The God whose overwhelming desire is to reconcile, to bring into the feast both the older and younger child, the foolhardy and the responsible. This is Jesus’ most sustained vision of what God is like.

And therefore the point is maybe that we are called to bethe father figure, enacting that reconciliation, which as Paul says is our epistle, is the ministry of us all. We need to find the strength to be vulnerable, like the Father who runs down the road to greet the younger son, and sweeps aside his apologies; find the strength to show the joy and mercy which breaks hearts and changes the patterns of our life together.

There so many ways to take this story. That’s without exploring how Jesus’ first hearers might have reacted to the parable, or the reading of this story by that great 20thcentury theologian, Karl Barth, for whom the Prodigal Son was Christ himself – making his journey into the far country; the journey of God into incarnated human living, in all its squalor and sinfulness; so that, as Christ becomes like us, so we may journey with him back into the arms of the welcoming Father: or as Paul puts: For our sake he made him sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. The point is not only that we are all like the Prodigal, but that God chooses to make that journey too.

So many readings of one story. And perhaps that today is the point worth drawing out. That humans are story tellers; we are a species formed and shaped by our story telling. It’s the reason we still gather to hear this familiar story, in all its multi-faceted depth; just as we will shortly enact other stories: as Alannah is baptised, brought through the waters of Christ’s death that she may live his resurrection life; and as bread and wine is taken and shared, and the re-telling, in our presence, enables it to become the presence of Christ among us and in us. Our gospel story continues to challenge us to think about why forgiveness and reconciliation and justice matter; in a world of estrangement and squalor, and dubious choices; just as our communion will remind us in a world of brokenness, of the possibility of transformation and wholeness and community. And so the stories form us, as we are invited to see the world and God as they suggest – to see the possibility for forgiveness and reconciliation and feasting, where we thought there was none.

For if it is not this story, this account of the world and the One who holds all things in life, then some other story, some other account of the way things are and might be, will be forming and shaping us. That’s true on a personal level – as Christians our baptism describes and enacts that fundamental shape of dying to self, dying to a life lived simply for ourselves, so that we may rise into Christ’s resurrection life, into his Body, a community of people living not for themselves, but to bring life for all, And it’s true on a corporate level. Hearing, once again, this most powerful of Jesus’ parables, should make us ask: what are the foundational stories that animate and shape our public debate? Do those stories invite us to cherish every human life, as Alannah is cherished and valued today? And do they re-open our eyes to others so that reconciliation in our divided society is imagined and invited? Too many of our ways of looking at the world, the stories which shape us, simply reinforce what we already think, our prejudices and fears, so that the challenge to be more human that the best stories pose and enable, is lost. For by our stories, how they shape us and what they provoke us to, shall we be known. Amen.

John Conway – Lent 2 – 17/03/19

(Genesis 15.1-12. 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3.17-4.1; Luke 13.31-35)

Our Old Testament reading today concerns our forebear in faith; that wellspring of all the faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – that trace themselves back to this archetypal man, to Abraham’s faith. Whatever the hateful ideology of the perpetrators of violence might say – all Jews, Christians and Muslims share this common ancestry. In today’s reading, however, Abram – as he still is at this stage, before his re-naming – Abram is anxious about the future. He and Sarai are childless, unable to imagine how the promises of God might be fulfilled. The future looks grim, despite assurances from God not to be fearful. And then Abram is brought outside to gaze upon the stars: ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them,’ he is told. ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And so the faith of Abram is re-kindled.

On Ash Wednesday I offered those of you at our services a poem: Lent by Jean Watt

Lent is a tree without blossom, without leaf,
Barer than blackthorn in its winter sleep,
All unadorned. Unlike Christmas which decrees
The setting-up, the dressing-up of trees,
Lent is a taking down, a stripping bare,
A starkness after all has been withdrawn
Of surplus and superfluous,
Leaving no hiding-place, only an emptiness
Between black branches, a most precious space
Before the leaf, before the time of flowers;
Lest we should see only the leaf, the flower,
Lest we should miss the stars.

The poem invites us, in this season of stripping bare, taking down, to not forget that we do that in order to see the stars, the bigger picture, that which lies beyond the immediate, that which it is easy to miss. In this a week to make us all anxious, uncertain over the future, what might enable us to see the stars, enable the re-kindling of faith and hope?

Our epistle and Gospel offer some clues as to what that looking for the stars might mean, and that re-kindling of faith. For Paul, the contrast is with those whose ‘god is the belly’. Words which suggest the calling is about getting beyond our immediate desires and cravings and seeking to satisfy those; refusing also to fan the flames of those desires in anger and the insatiable need for more. Instead to see our citizenship, our final rootedness and identity, as in heaven, among the stars, the eternal.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus, like Abram, has every reason to be anxious. The ‘wise’ counsel him to leave, and avoid his pursuer, Herod. He is making a name for himself, and he would do better to lie low. Jesus, however, offers, in counter to Herod, the one he names as a fox, no desire to hide. He will continue to do what he is called to do, bring life and cures to those he meets. And not walk away from those centres of power which feel threatened and so threaten him, but walk ever toward Jerusalem. And he then offers this remarkable image to that city of power and broiling tension and death, where the fox resides.  Jesus offers himself, not as the Lion of Judah roaring a response, but as a mother hen, gathering her squabbling chicks into the shelter of her wings, if only they were willing. The hen has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill the hen first.

In Philippians, Paul urges his readers to imitate him – not in being Paul, but, in turn, in imitating Christ, our mother hen. Together, we are called into that imitation of Christ which opposes the fox not with bared fangs, but in the gesture of love that gathers to her bosom all the children of Jerusalem.

In the febrile atmosphere of this coming week, who is offering a glimpse of the stars? As we all woke to the terrible news from Christchurch, children across the globe were gathering in their thousands, striking from their studies, to ask the world to wake up to climate change and act. Those are the actions which re-kindle our faith in our future.

Abram, after staring at the stars, later still finds himself within a deep and terrifying darkness, standing amongst slaughter and death and destruction. But he holds on to the promise, arrives at an understanding of the promise given, moves forward with faith and hope. May we, in this season of Lent, and in the week ahead, do likewise. Amen.

John Conway – Sunday before Lent (Transfiguration) – 03/03/19

(Genesis 15, 1-12, 17-18; Philippians 3.17-4.1; Luke 9.28-36)

‘Now about eight days after these sayings, Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white.’

So begins our Gospel reading from Luke, that strange story of transfiguration, as it is usually described, when Jesus’ face shines like the sun and his clothes become white as the light.

It’s a story about prayer and about glory. That combination might suggest beginning this sermon with famous words from Gerard Manley Hopkins:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil

That would suggest that we take this story of a mountaintop epiphany as an exemplar of a much more common phenomena: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” The transfiguration is suggested as an example of those moments that many experience, when time stands still, when you glimpse the more, the God who works in and through all things. The fact that the transfiguration occurs on a mountaintop is no accident, we might say, for that is where many of us, in the exhilaration of a mountaintop, the world laid out below us, where many of us experience an overwhelming sense of God’s grandeur and glory. Or we could talk of those moments of transcendence and epiphany occurring when we witness an act of un-self-interested love, when our perception of friends, neighbours, strangers is suddenly altered by an act of grace.

That is one way to approach, seek to understand, this strange story of the Transfiguration – that it is a heightened example of an experience that many have fleetingly experienced. It is, in the case of the gospel story, centered on Jesus, but it is not particular to him. But I’m not sure it gets to the heart of what is being claimed, and presented here. This is not simply an example of a general phenomena, but an experience that brings into focus the very particular claim that the disciples would go on to make about this person, Jesus.

Edwin Muir, in his poem, The Transfiguration, enters the mind of the three disciples as they reflect on that mountaintop moment:

Was it a vision?

Or did we see that day the unseeable

One glory of the everlasting world

Perpetually at work, though never seen

Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere

And nowhere?

The story of the Transfiguration is about the seeing of the unseeable; the undoing of that locking of the gate of Eden that is everywhere and nowhere – the way back, and forward, to Paradise. Not an example of a general phenomena, but a revealing of the particular truth of this person, Jesus. This is shown explicitly in icons of the transfiguration where Jesus does not simply reflect light from another source, but is the light source itself, it is from Jesus that glory shines forth and causes those around – the three disciples in most icons, to cast shadows from that light emanating from Jesus himself. He does not simply reflect the light and glory of God – he is the light and glory.

The context of our gospel reading is important: it comes after Jesus has talked to his disciples  about the way of the cross, and the suffering to which his path commits him, and his disciples. And then he goes, on this eighth day, up a mountain, to pray, to seek after God’s presence in prayer. There is a symbolic importance to that eighth day, the day beyond the seventh day, the day of Sabbath rest – the eight day is the day of resurrection, the day of new creation. We are used to days 1 to 7, here is the eighth day, the day beyond and outside our normal pattern and practices. We enter something transcendent here. Moses and Elijah are part of that eternity of God’s dealings with humanity – Jesus is seen as linked to those depths. And for Peter and James and John this experience of prayer, this seeing of Christ in a new light, asa new light, ends with the command: ‘This is my Son, my chosen, listen to him.’ Listen to him: shape our lives around this one from whom glory radiates. This is God – in this human life of prayer and suffering and love.

The other context for our Gospel reading is the context provided by today, the Sunday before Lent, and also by it being Fairtrade Sunday. We are encouraged, in prayer, before we enter the self-reflection and disciplines of Lent, to see that unseeable one glory which Christ embodies, and to invite it to shape us.

For Fairtrade Sunday we are particularly thinking about chocolate, and the producers of cocoa who sustain our consumption. In the Ivory Coast, 4 million people grow cocoa, much of which comes to the UK. More than 60% of those cocoa farmers live below the United Nations poverty line of £1.47 per day. In the light of the glory emanating from the one who comes to save all humanity, in that light, and listening to him, are those cocoa farmers simply to be exploited for all that we can get? Or does that opening of the gate into another reality, suggest we too might shape our relations with one another not on the basis of economic power and muscle, but on relationship and mutuality. It is that relationship and mutuality, restored again and again by Jesus in the healings he provokes as he walks the way of the cross; relationship and mutuality that are at the heart of Fairtrade, that we are called to embody, be shaped by, in the light of that one glory which Christ embodies.

Up on the mountain top, Peter famously wants to preserve the moment – ‘let us make three dwellings’ he says. This peak experience needs to be captured, memorialized. But that is not to be – rather this moment, this timeless, transcendent moment, is bound to everything else, this glory perpetually at work. This moment of prayer leads to what follows – Jesus plunging down the mountain – into a round of healing and binding up, and suffering. And so on to Jerusalem and another time when Jesus will take Peter, John and James with him to pray – in the garden of Gethsemane. Pray, not so that Jesus is transfigured with light, but in agony – Father, let this cup of suffering pass. This is our Lenten journey, to walk and pray with Christ in moments of transfiguration and glory, and to walk and pray in moments of agony and darkness. And at all times, to listen to him. Amen.

Epiphany 6 – Paul Foster – 17/02/19

1 Cor 15.12-20 and Lk 6.17-26

If I were to ask you what is the most important or central belief in the Christian faith, I wonder what you would answer? In many ways it is an impossible question, and it would almost certainly misrepresent the Christian faith to reduce it to a single belief. However, if I was to allow you three or four statements I would hazard a guess that the name Jesus would feature prominently, and that there would be references to his incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection. Today’s reading from 1 Corinthians focuses on the resurrection, but not just the resurrection of Jesus – it makes clear that belief in the resurrection of Christ is the basis for the assurance that followers of Jesus will likewise be raised from the dead and be partakers in that resurrection life that Christ inaugurates.

‘Dead people do not rise from the dead.’ It is a statement I have heard many times when discussing the Christian faith with people – and to be honest I understand exactly why people make that statement. We are not talking about resuscitations, those medical marvels where people who have been pronounced clinically dead are brought back to life a matter of minutes or sometimes even hours later. We all know those events happen and that they have been documented. What people reject is the belief that somebody who had been laid in tomb for the best part of three days, after being crucified, could come back to life again. In fact, like my questioning interlocutors, I do not buy the so-called “swoon theories” – that is the idea that Jesus was not really dead and that rest in a cold tomb was a period of recovery. I would rather bank on the fact that the Romans actually knew how to kill somebody so that they were really dead. I also readily confess that I have not met anybody who has been genuinely dead for several days and then returned to life. So I can understand that scepticism around this most central of Christian claims – the belief in the resurrection from the dead. Yet despite the difficulty due to the fact that resurrection appears to transcend our natural expectations, the resurrection of Jesus in the past and the belief of the future resurrection of believers remains a central claim of the Christian faith.

In today’s reading from 1 Corinthians, after having laid out a list of post-resurrection appearances to Peter, then to the twelve, then James and all the apostles, and lastly to Paul himself, Paul turns to a theological problem that appears to be plaguing the Corinthian community – some in the community appear to be saying there is no resurrection, at least not for believers in the future. Paul asks the rhetorical question, how is it that if Christ is proclaimed as having been raised from the dead that some believers in Corinth state ‘there is no resurrection of the dead?’ For Paul, such logic is incomprehensible. He goes so far as to say if the Corinthians have no hope in a future resurrection for believers, then the implication is that they are really denying the resurrection of Jesus. I am not sure what led some early believers in Corinth to that position. Last summer, for the first time I visited the site of ancient Corinth. Apart from the warmth and the wonderful views over the glistening Corinthian Gulf, the thing I remember was how small the city-site was. This small band of early believers lived cheek-by-jowl with their neighbours who held to majority pagan religious practices. I suspect with their new found faith the Corinthian Christians must have seemed weird. Not only had they given up traditional beliefs in a pantheon of gods in exchange for exclusive faith in one God, yet even stranger was the fact that the new faith centred on a person who had been crucified at the hands of the Romans. Nonetheless, this crucified Messiah was claimed to have come back to life again. At the beginning of his later, Paul goes so far as to state ‘we preach Christ crucified … to Gentiles foolishness.’ It is easy to imagine the ridicule and mockery the Corinthians experienced for this belief in a crucified messiah. So maybe it was more comfortable for some of those Corinthian believers to say they followed the teachings and ethics of the man from Nazareth, and simply or not acknowledge or to reject that central faith claim: that God had raised Jesus from the dead, and that believers also would become partakers in this resurrection life.

In response to this type of thinking Paul drives the logic of his argument home. He states again, ‘if the dead are not raised then Christ has not been raised’. Some might have said what is the problem with that, but Paul anticipates such thinking. He responds that ‘if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless, you are still in your sins.’ Be under no misapprehension, according to Paul, it is the resurrection of Christ that is the guarantee of the genuineness of faith. So let me put the uncomfortable logic of Paul before each of us today, do we believe in the resurrection of Christ and the future resurrection of believers, or (as Paul would put it) is our faith worthless? Paul’s logic offers a stark and binary set of alternatives. He presses his argument hope with the following statement, ‘if we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.’ In essence, Paul is stating that without the resurrection of Jesus, the Christian faith is a pitiful delusions. I wonder if you agree with that assessment?

I was at a memorial service in this cathedral some little time ago. The person being remembered was without doubt a faithful and believing Christian, but the service struck me as being strange at many levels. Above all, the thing that disquieted me the most was the complete and utter lack of any reference to future Christian hope. I spoke to one of my dear colleagues afterwards, who had not only noticed the same thing but shared with me that our very perceptive organist had said that it felt like a secular crematorium service. Ten out of ten to the organist for his wonderful theological sense. The problem was there was no reference to Christian hope in the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, and the hope of a future resurrection for believers. When it comes my turn to shuffle of this mortal coil – in my case burial not cremation please(!), I want somebody to read the words of Jesus that he is the resurrection and the life, and then to declare in the words of the prayer book that the mortal body is being buried ‘in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ I cannot scientifically prove to you that resurrection from the dead is possible, I will never quell the doubts of the sceptics, but I simply trust that the same God who raised our Lord Jesus from the dead, will – through the sacrificial love of Christ – have forgiven my sins (which are many), and that God will raise both you and I to a new and transformed life to be one with Christ for ever.

At this point my thinking strayed, and I began to wonder if the claims of Paul were actually normative for Christianity. First, I considered the words of the creed which we recite each week. It is a short statement, but together we declare that ‘we look for the resurrection of the dead.’ Then I wondered what other churches believe today. Turning to the Roman Catholic catechism, paragraph 655 for the swots among you, states ‘Christ’s resurrection and the risen Christ himself is the principle and source of our future resurrection.’ The Greek Orthodox church states of God that ‘You deigned that your only begotten son should become man, to be crucified, to die as man, to be resurrected and to become the first born from the dead, and to make possible our resurrection.’ Admittedly, these are quite historic churches, so I wondered if more recent churches might deviate. So from the statement of faith from a Southern Baptist seminary: ‘Jesus bodily resurrection is also the guarantee of a future resurrection life for all believers.’ Then from our more Pentecostally-minded fellow believers in Destiny church in Edinburgh we have ‘we believe that only because of Jesus’ death and resurrection people can be forgiven and have eternal life.’ It seems to me that if your three or four statements about the centre of the Christian faith does not include reference to the resurrection of Christ – it is time for you to consider a redraft.

The problem with all this talk of future resurrection, is that if it is not accompanied by reflection on contemporary Christian discipleship, then (to cite the cliché), it can be too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good. If today’s epistle presented us with a core item of the Christian faith, then our gospel reading gives us an equally core aspect of the teachings of Jesus. Our reading from Luke gives us the sermon on the plain, with Luke’s shorter, more earthly-minded set of beatitudes. For Luke, unlike Matthew, writes blessed are the poor – not the poor in spirit, and blessed are those who hunger and thirst – not for righteousness as in Matthew, but those who actually hunger and thirst. The poor, the hungry, and them that mourn – these are the people to whom the Lukan Jesus assigns a special blessing and privilege in the kingdom. For as much as Christians share certain beliefs, those beliefs are not an end in themselves. Belief in the resurrected Jesus, must leads us to transforming the world in the here and now for the destitute, the down-trodden, and the despised. In effect, we are called to make that resurrection life, that time when every tear will be wiped away, a reality – at least in part – in the present world in which we live. Writing to the Corinthians in his second letter, Paul still affirms the transformative power of the risen Christ, he states ‘that if anyone is in Christ that person is a new creature, the old things have passed away, new things have come.’ However, this is not all for the future, as if we could sit back and do nothing now. Paul continues by saying that God has reconciled us in Christ ‘and so gave us the ministry of reconciliation.’

Christ’s resurrection is indeed the promise of our future resurrection, but it is also the pattern for our transformation in this life. We are to continue the work of Jesus, by binding the broken, healing the hurt, loving the loveless, and reconciling the rejected. That is resurrection life in the here and now. So with the broken, with the reject, with the hunger, we gather here today. We ask Christ to forgive us, to begin to transform us in this life, and to raise us to new life with him in the world to come. With the hungry we gather at this place of feeding, a wooden table reminding us of a wooden cross. Ye this is also a place of hope and healing, in fact a place of resurrection. So, come today as those who share in Christ’s risen life, as those prepared to share in his ministry of reconciliation. And together with all those whom Christ loves – the poor, the hungry, and them that mourn – we will offer our praise to the risen Lord, the one raised from the dead by the power of God, for to him belongs all wisdom, might, honour, dominion and glory, both now in our broken world and in that glorious resurrection life that is to come. Amen.

John Conway – Epiphany 5 – 10/02/19

Epiphany 5

(Isaiah 6.1-13; 1Corinthians 15.1-11; Luke 5.1-11)

In the name of God, creating, redeeming and sustaining. Amen.

‘As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea – for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him.’

That sparse and direct account is the version of Peter’s call from Mark’s Gospel. In Luke’s account that we just heard, there is a certain expansion, elaboration on the story. Indulge me, as I take that expansion as the template for something similar – if a little more extended – an invitation to enter for yourself this most redolent of stories. To revisit, in its light, your own call and invitation, your encounter with Christ.

And Simon Peter said:

We had been at work all night – a long fruitless night with no catch to show for the hours of back-breaking toil in the darkness – no catch to sell, no money to take home. A long, fruitless dark night. But now, as the sun rose, and the warmth of the day took hold, we were cast up on the seashore, in the solitude of tending our nets – the endless repetitive work of making everything secure and right – washing them free from the debris of the night – wondering as I did so if it was all worth it, this endless cycle with often nothing to show for it. But after all, I thought, it’s all I know, all I’ve been brought up to do – fish, fish like my father, and his father. It runs in the family this fishing and somehow we get by.

And then suddenly all this quiet thinking, this tidying up and setting right was interrupted – crowds appeared – people running for the best view, pressing in some chap who was in the thick of it – surrounded by people, shouting to him, and at him, oblivious to others, they were. And he, well he wasn’t panicked by all the attention – he moved amongst them with quiet grace and determination. Saw our boats, in fact, and made a beeline for us. Oh, what’s going on here I thought – not what I need at the end of a long night’s fishing – to be overtaken by the latest ‘sensation’, the latest know-it-all from Jerusalem, or rabble-rouser from the sticks. The kind who whips up a crowd, starts a riot and then disappears. Not what I need, not right now. And there he is making straight for our boats – as if they were his, as if the whole world were his. And without a by your leave he’s stepping into my boat, and asking me to push off. Well with the crowd pressing in, it seemed a fairly sensible move – but I wasn’t best pleased – to find myself bobbing along the seashore, trapped in my own boat, having to hear the man’s sermon, when I wanted my bed!

But there I was, and the strange thing was I found my resentment giving way to attention – for he spoke like no-one else I had heard. His words made sense – at least, they made you think, and think that somehow he must know you. What he said didn’t build him up – make you think what he clever chap he is – they made you think about yourself – made you think that you mattered, mattered in ways that you hadn’t thought possible. Well that was a bit of a shock – sat there in my boat.

And then he finished, with no great flourish, but somehow the crowd had had enough and quietly dispersed, broke up to share food and talk I suppose, but he turned to me and my companions, and asked us to put out into the deeper water. Well if he’d asked an hour earlier he’d have got an earful about our night’s fruitless fishing, but now – well I did tell him we were a bit tired – but he was the kind of man it’s hard to refuse, and actually I don’t usually need a second invitation to head out onto the lake. To put out into the deep is what keeps me a fisherman – that journey out away from the hubbub of the shore, out into the deep waters. Those deep waters have a mystery, an allure, all their own – the sense of floating on all that water and who knows quite what else. The occasional glimmer of fish, and the possibility of so much more. The deep waters – and so we did put out, once more – in response to that strange summons. And let out our nets, once more. Did this man even know anything about fishing?

That wasn’t a question we contemplated for long. For suddenly the nets bulged – we were in the midst of a shoal of fish the like of which you never did see. It threatened to capsize us, the nets heaved so – we had to shout for the other boat to join us – it was all hands needed, and even then, there was such a flurry of activity, of shouting orders, and heaving, and making sure we didn’t tip over, and exclaiming at the fish, the fish – everywhere. Too much, too much.

And in the midst of all this – this excitement and bewilderment and frenzy – he, he just laughed and delighted in it all. But me, I was suddenly struck dumb, and it hit me – this was no ordinary Tuesday morning in February. My world was threatening to turn upside down – and he, he was the cause of it. All things flowed from him – I was in the presence of something incredible, something both fascinating and fearful; of the holy, I suppose. Holiness – not something I thought about much – except when those smug types – the Holy Joes – appeared to tell us how to live – making us feel inadequate so that they could feel good about themselves – but this was very different. This was like nothing I had met, and yet he was just like you and me. He seemed to know and see stuff, and yet he talked with such simplicity and directness. And now, well I was overwhelmed, there in that boat surrounded by fish, and him laughing and me gaping, and thinking ‘this can’t be real, this is like something out of the pages of the bible – like I’m Isaiah in the temple overwhelmed by God – it was all too much, too much. And so I fell to my knees – I could no longer look him in the eye. And I begged him to leave; to not disturb my settled world. For this, this holiness, asked too much of me. It was like I was plunged into those deep waters I was used to navigating. Suddenly up to my neck in the mystery of it all, with who knows what fish swimming about me. I felt afraid and unprepared and not up to it – not worthy, not worthy to be in this man’s presence and company. I, I was a fisherman, what had I to do with this man, with his talk of God, and his healings and the press of the crowds. “Go away”, I cried, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” You are you and I am me and we are not the same. I cannot, I cannot do this.

And from him – no words of condemnation – he understood, and somehow knew all that my heart dared not say. “Do not be afraid,” he said, lifting me from my knees, and staring into my eyes. Not to judge and find wanting, but to fill me with strange courage and faith and hope. “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” You areyou, he seemed to say, a fisherman born and bred – and that is enough. Enough to fish in the mysterious deep waters that I will show you – the deep waters of the lives of others. Not to judge them and find wanting but to fill them with courage and faith and hope.

And so when we reached the shore I left everything and followed him. For I had been found. And that was enough – more than enough. I left everything and gained – the world. For this was just the beginning.