Pentecost 2 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 19th June

1Kings 19.1-15; Luke 8.26-39

‘Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.’

A sound of sheer silence. The Authorised Version famously translated this moment of meeting between God and Elijah as ‘a still, small voice’ – the translation picked up in our gradual hymn and that wonderfully evocative final line, ‘O still small voice of calm.’ That’s certainly one way to understand this moment – a moment of calm, a voice of calm, after the noise and fury of the earthquake, wind and fire. But ‘a sound of sheer silence’ suggests other possibilities too, possibilities rooted in our own experience of silence.

A literal translation of the original Hebrew, I’m told, would be ‘voice of thin silence’, voice of thin silence. This is not quite nonsense, but you can see the difficulties that translators are confronted with, especially when the uniqueness of this passage means that we have no idea what the Hebrew would have meant to its original listeners – there is nothing else quite like it, to compare it to. A certain incomprehensibility is all to the good, for this is speech about an encounter with God, and what ever else we go on to say, our words about God should begin with an admission of their inadequacy. God begins and ends in mystery – any adequate response to a moment of encounter is wonder and awe. Any translation, while remaining faithful to the original, needs to help us into that moment of stillness and encounter, beyond the raging wind, and earthquake and fire, to meet the living, indescribable, God.

A sound of sheer silence. I’m immediately reminded of that moment at the end of the performance of some pieces of music; when as part of an audience you are profoundly aware of the silence; you want that moment to last, for you have been carried to a place of stillness and silence. After the noise and fury of what has gone before – sorry that doesn’t sound very complimentary to the music, but you know what I am driving at – after all that has gone on before, that silence is a moment of transcendence and community; it is larger than any one individual, and I stretches out, until the dam bursts and applause can be held back no longer. The silence is dependent and in contrast to what has gone before, but it is very much a communal experience. In our passage from 1Kings, Elijah is alone, downcast. This moment of encounter turns him around.

A sound of sheer silence. Be still and know that I am God, Psalm 46 exhorts us. There’s clearly a long tradition of an encounter with God beginning in silence. The practice and discipline of maintaining silence, of being still and letting God be God, is hard, however; often difficult to sustain. In our busy, noise-filled lives, we long for silence, and yet for many of us, I suspect, it remains at that level of longing. We protest loudly that ‘all I want is some peace and quiet’, but given an unexpected hour of space, we often go looking for something to fill it. And perhaps that is because actually sheer silence is unnerving – the encounter with the silence of God uncomfortable.

A sound of sheer silence. Does it make any sense to speak of that silence being the place of encounter with God? For the atheist, that silence is vindication of the absence of God. The silence is the silence of nothingness, of meaninglessness. As Pascal famously noted, ‘the eternal silence of the infinite spaces terrifies me.’ And to enter silence can be to enter that place of doubt, that abyss: be still and know the pain of the lack of God’s presence, of the loss of meaning. To enter into silence is to risk finding the world meaningless – no wonder we prefer the temporary comfort of busy-ness, and noise. Entering silence involves a stripping bare, but that is where, at times, our true hope lies. For that may not be simply meaningless. Elijah, in the cave at Horeb, is at the end of his tether – desperate, alone. The earthquake, wind and fire are in that sense outward manifestations of what is going on internally – noise and confusion and terror. It is a sound of sheer silence that reveals something new, turns him around, moves him out of his self-obsession, and gives him a new task.

For silence, rather than betokening meaninglessness; silence is where God can be at work in us.

A sound of sheer silence. This is where prayer begins. And where it ends. Silence is where, to take our cue from today’s gospel, our demons have to be wrestled with. In silence we become aware of both the distractions our minds are capable of throwing up, and the evasions our ego demands. No wonder silence involves a stripping bare. The silence calls us to a simplicity of life before the living God, beyond our usual mess of competing desires, complicated ruses and evasions. Our lives are all too often, like the Gerasene demoniac of Luke’s gospel, filled with clamour; lived amongst tombs of the past, ready at any moment to return to haunt us. The Gerasene reaches the point of stillness, sat at the feet of Christ, clothed and in his right mind, through the confrontation of those demons. The surrounding crowd are unnerved at such healing, at such arrival into stillness and silence. They too have demons. For most of us, such healing involves a lifetime – a continual returning to that uncomfortable silence of God in which our evasions, our demons and fears, are named and redeemed. For the silence is the silence of suffering love, of love that knows all things, bears all things, redeems all things. Prayer begins by entering that silence of the eternal God, and seeing what happens to us there. We might find that like Elijah on Mount Horeb, we are told to stop being so self-piyting and return to our prophetic duties; like the Gerasene demoniac, we might begin to be healed and sent out to declare the good works of God, like Paul we might become clothed with Christ, given a new identity beyond the markers that so easily divide us. A sound of sheer silence. Where God can be God. Amen.

Trinity Sunday. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley – 12th June 2020

Welcome to Trinity Sunday – the week when we explore how we think about  the names we use to speak about the mystery that is God. For those who grew up with the Prayer Book, Father Son and Holy Ghost was, perhaps is, the default. Like any default position, it does no harm to revisit, to check out whether it still serves us.

We know that language evolves and changes over time. Dictionaries are constantly being updated to reflect that evolution; there are times when we realise that a particular phrase no longer serves us because its meaning has changed in daily use. We can be confused by an unexpected use of language. Some obvious recent examples are woke; wicked; gay… all of which have different meanings for different generations.

Language points us towards something, helps us to understand the nature of that thing, but it isn’t the object itself. For women of a certain age and outlook, Spare Rib magazine was a radical feminist publication that really pushed at boundaries. I learned this week that the name was chosen at a Chinese Restaurant. It’s perfect – it says enough but not too much. It encourages the reader to think beyond what’s immediately in front of them. Language used creatively but not aggressively.

Thinking then about the language we use for God and how it helps – or hinders – our understanding of who God is and who we are in relation to our God. There is a range of contemporary attempts at a more inclusive version of Father Son and Holy Ghost. But is it just wokeness wriggling its way into the church or is there a reason why we might move in that direction?

Let’s take the 3 persons of the Trinity and think about who they are and how we might name them. I think it’s fairly easy to see that Father is the most contentious of the titles. By no stretch of the imagination could Father be argued to really mean Father and Mother. The traditional image of the old white man in the sky is very definitely a cultural norm in some contexts as an image of Father God.  And for some people, Father God is a safe and comforting and helpful way in.  But for others, father is someone who is anything but safe. For some, father may be someone who they never knew, or a very distant figure who it wasn’t possible to have a relationship with. There was a move a while ago to address God as mother – if not instead, then alongside. But I don’t think that solves the problem. Clearly, there are the same issues for those whose relationship with their mother isn’t great. But more importantly, limiting God to some kind of parental role, limits God.

Our Christian teaching tells us that we are made in the image of God; that each one of us uniquely reflects in some small way something of the nature of God.
If something of who we understand God to be is reflected in our shared humanity, then our language for God needs to encompass that. Our language needs to express something of the diversity that is held within the image of God. Some of us are Fathers and mothers – and many aren’t. And yet all are made in that same image of God that is bigger and more inclusive than we can ever imagine. So why would we even try to limit our language for God to one or two terms?  What stops us from experimenting, from checking out how we hear and feel about very different ways of talking about God? They may not all work for all of us – and that’s fine; they make help us to understand more about who we know God not to be as we grow in our experience of who God can be.

The second person of the Trinity is Jesus, the son. Now there is no disputing that the incarnate Christ was born into a male body and lived his life as a first century man. But who, for us, is this Christ?  Son of God, sure. But that doesn’t tell us anything about who he is for us – how we might relate to him and find ways to invite him into our lives.  Words that are used for Jesus are often things like friend; companion; mentor; role model; redeemer; saviour. Son may encompass some of those, but what does it leave out?

There is undoubtedly a parent/child aspect to how we are and who we are with God, but if we’re not careful that leads us into a place of dependence and an abdication of personal responsibility.  Good parenting is about resourcing our children to take responsibility, about helping them to take risks and make mistakes. If that is what we wish for our children, surely it’s also what God wishes for us – and choosing to follow Jesus means that we are choosing to follow a man who models the best of human interaction. If Jesus is my companion and my guide; my inspiration and my role model, then the person I am in relation to him, and to God, can’t be summed up in one or two words. If I give myself permission to use a wider vocabulary about Jesus, I give myself permission to explore more of who God wants me to be. As we gain a deeper understanding of that, we perhaps become more confident in the ways that we speak about our faith and its complexities. We perhaps give ourselves permission to be more courageous, more exploratory in the language we use – and by so doing might we just find that we have found a new way to resonate with other people?

And then we come to the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit.  As general usage and understanding of the term ghost changed, so the shift within our churches was generally made towards using Holy Spirit, which wasn’t actually an updated version, although it maybe felt that way; it had always been an alternative. The move away from using ghost was a deliberate attempt not to limit what people heard.

The Spirit who brings and breathes new life, new perspectives, new ways of being. We often use the word transforming to speak about the impact of the Spirit. We speak about the comfort that the Spirit might bring; about the movement of the Spirit in our world and our lives. This language isn’t dismissing the previous one, it’s adding to and enhancing. Language allows us to explore and stretch and challenge ourselves. Clearly it also allows us to tell other people something about who we are as a community and how we experience God within our community. The best language speaks not just to us, but also to people who wouldn’t describe themselves as us.

The best choice of language is probably one that none of us fully embraces but that has enough breadth and depth that it speaks to each of us where we are, and allows room for growth and new insights.

None of our language is adequate to describe the nature of God. But in the same way that a Trinitarian understanding of the nature of God goes a little way towards helping us engage with God, so a broader and more nuanced range of language goes a little way towards opening up our communication with and about God. As our language evolves, we evolve. As we evolve, our engagement with God evolves – and so one supports and enables the other. May that evolution always be filled with surprise.


Pentecost – Sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 5th June

Genesis 11.1-9; Acts 2.1-21; John 14.8-17, 25-27

Our first reading this morning told the story of the tower of Babel. We are in Genesis chapter 11: the final act, one might say, of pre-history. After this, the Book of Genesis embarks on the story of Abraham, and we are into almost recognisable history (however loosely that term is understood). But in the first 11 chapters of Genesis we are in myth, a narrative that articulates how and why the world is the way the world is: we have had the story of creation, of the expulsion of humanity from the garden. We have had Cain and Abel; and Noah, his ark, and the rainbow of God’s covenant with the earth. And the final act in this mythic unfolding narrative is God scattering, creating a babble, to confuse and divide a humanity that has used its one universal language to try and colonise heaven. Humanity has used the power given to it at the start of Genesis, the power of dominion, to dominate, and not to steward; to build up, up, up instead of reaching out sideways. The mythic storytelling lays out a disconnected world, where people are divided from each other in particular by language.

First published in 1951, Ethnologue, is a book which documents the languages of the world. In that first edition, the linguist Richard Pittman identified 46 known languages in the world. In the latest, 25th edition of Ethnologue, published earlier this year, 7,151 known living languages are documented. It is worth noting that that is down from the 7,299 living languages recorded 15 years ago – nearly 150 languages have been lost in that time. Ethnologue, in the 70 years it has been documenting language, testifies to the rapid process of globalisation, that both makes us more aware of those different languages – from 46 to over 7,000 known languages – and to the ways the process of globalisation often hastens their demise. We are more than ever before perhaps, one world. We live that globalisation: information and knowledge and capital flow around our world with unprecedented speed. We live in the age of the internet, and also of Macdonald’s. And yet we are as divided and disconnected from each other as ever. The tower of Babel retains its mythic power to describe our own historical moment: we reach both literally and figuratively for the skies, and many a global company dreams of a universal language where its brand is understood and bought by all, and yet are we colonising heaven, or creating hell?

Our reading from the Book of Acts, that moment of Pentecost, that coming of the Spirit, is of course proclaimed as the moment when the legacy of Babel is overcome. But it’s vital to note that that is not by a reversal of Babel. Pentecost is not the discovery of a universal language, but the moment when a diversity of people are enabled by the Spirit to hear the proclamation of the resurrection in their own language:

‘How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? … In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 

Christianity begins in a moment of translation, of meeting in a foreign tongue. The disciples are as confused as everyone else for they are not in control of the process, it has taken them beyond the boundaries of the known. They discover a Holy Spirit who, whilst an advocate, an articulator of God’s deeds of power, is  not one who sets them against others, but help them make connections, find and articulate the truth lived out together. The Spirit creates a community where the stranger is not a threat, where the barriers of language are overcome by taking us out of our own mother tongue, our own comfort zone, and creating something new. Diversity without division, and unity without uniformity, characterizes that earliest church.

Pentecost undoes our babbling confusion not by imposing a single language, but by enabling the Spirit’s truth to be known in translation. The unity of our humanity is found in those 7,151 languages, not destroyed by them. What makes us different, one from another is no longer seen as that which keeps us apart, but that which together praises God, the source of all life.

We’ve been encouraged to think a lot about unity these last few days: the Queen’s Jubilee is regularly evoked as a moment of national unity, and I don’t doubt the truth of that. The coincidence of Pentecost and the Jubilee might help us think through the nature and character of that almost intangible unity we celebrate. For it is hard to put your finger on what characterizes it. That unity finds its focus, of course, in a  redoubtable, formidable yet frail 96 year old. Finds its focus in our Queen, who has embraced a life of service and duty and devotion. And yet the Jubilee is about more than her, however much we celebrate her life and reign at its heart – the Jubilee is a national moment, capturing something of the nation’s spirit; it transcends any one of us and yet unites us.

And however much a 70 year anniversary helps us look back, it’s not just about nostalgia either. Some us of remember previous Jubilees – maybe even the start of our Queen’s reign, but that looking back also reminds us how much has changed; and part of that change is how much more diverse a nation we are now than we used to be, or thought of ourselves as. The forces of globalisation have profoundly shaped us these last 70 years, just as the legacies of empire, and yes, slavery, assert themselves and ask hard questions of who we are. Those voices are part of the Jubilee too, the national story which finds focus and voice in moments like this.

And in the very understandable absences of the Queen from moments of this weekend’s celebrations there has been a visible handing on of the reins that begins to hint and shape the future. The Jubilee matters because it embraces all that within the overall joy and power of celebration: the sense of an unfolding story; the strength found in diversity and the praise of many voices; the drawing us into the truth of our future, and not just a nostalgic clinging to the past. God’s Spirit which brought new life to the early church, is at work among us too. Like the first disciples, we are not in control, however much we might like to be. The will to power that tries to build towers that conquer, is undone as we discover the work of the Spirit by speaking the acts of God in new tongues, new ways, new points of meeting. Our unity is not something we can tie down; our truth is not something already known; both are joyfully discovered in the work of the reconciling, transforming, hopeful and surprising Spirit. Praise be to God. Amen.


Easter 7 – sermon preached by Paul Foster Sunday 29th March

Acts 16.16-34

One of my earliest memories after being newly arrived in Edinburgh nearly twenty years ago was walking along Hanover Street, the stretch between Queen Street and George Street. A lady came up to me and asked me something. I could not make out what she said, so I uttered the single word “sorry” and walked away. You might think that would have been the end of the encounter, but you would be wrong! The lady pursued me at a rapid rate. Among her many high-level skills were the following two noteworthy examples. First, she seemed to be remarkably well informed about my parentage. Second, at least in one particular semantic domain, the lady had a quite remarkable vocabulary, combining a range of Scots words with extensive Anglo-Saxon terminology which she recited at some volume. At this point in the encounter, I had the sense that all the eyes of Edinburgh were upon me. In truth, there were probably only two or three people looking in my direction. I tried to quicken my pace, only to find I was matched by the speedy and articulate lady. At that stage, and not at all to my credit, I took what I considered to be the only course of action available – I legged it. After all, I was twenty years younger back then.

The book of Acts tells us of the recent arrival of Paul, Silas and Timothy in Philippi (although Timothy is remarkably absent from the narrative). Last week, in her sermon, Esther, described the encounter with Lydia the seller of purple. We heard how her positive reception of the gospel message led to the opening of her home, and provision of shelter and hospitality. Philippi was a new city built on an ancient site. In 42 B.C. Mark Antony and Octavian (later the emperor Augustus) defeated Cassius and Brutus. After the ensuing power struggle with Mark Antony, Augustus refounded Philippi as a Roman colony. The city and surrounding area was populated with military veterans and Italian farmers. The new inhabitants enjoyed legal privileges as imperial citizens, there was flourishing economic prosperity, and Roman culture predominated. For those who had left their homes to live in the new colony, they certainly made this new city feel like a Rome away Rome.

Having received hospitality from Lydia, Paul and his associates commenced their ministry of gospel proclamation. However, their next encounter with a female in the city was not so congenial. These new arrivals found themselves pursued and hounded by a slave women crying out details of their identity. The text of the story tells us that this young woman had “a spirit of divination.” It is easy at this point to want to interpret the text through our own lens and maybe to understand this as some kind of mental illness. However, perhaps we are better to read this ancient text as it stands, and to resist the temptation to colonize it with our own modern Western worldview and instead simply read it on its own terms. The Greek text does not actually say the woman had a spirit of divination, but that she had a “spirit of python.” Such a designation draws on the fertile mythology of the ancient world, referring to the Greek god Apollo and the story of his defeat of a giant serpent Python. After Apollo’s victory he gained some of the powers of the defeated serpent. In somewhat overlapping mythologies, oracular gifts were also viewed as being possessed by Apollo’s priestess Pythia (a pythoness) who was considered to be a source or reliable prophetic information. This priestess was based at Delphi and the python spirit was considered to be the source of the opaque but reliable Delphic oracles. Therefore, the author of Acts presents the woman in Philippi as enslaved not just by profiteering masters, but also enslaved to a snake like spirit that gave her special insight at a huge personal cost. It is for another day, but one might ask why ancient writers often portrayed women coming under the influence of serpent. Perhaps you can think of another relevant example.

However, taking the story on its own terms, we see an enslaved woman financially exploited for her gift of fortune-telling. In an almost comic scene, we are told that Paul and Silas were heckled by this individual for a number of days. In the end, rather than taking the coward’s action of “legging it”, Paul confronts the woman and performs an ad hoc exorcism. At this point the woman disappears from the story. However, I cannot help but wonder what became of her. Now deprived of her skill was she cast aside as a valueless commodity, or was it the case that freed from the spirit that possessed her that she returned to a more normal life. Unfortunately, we simply do not know.

Instead, the powerful slave-owners step into the narrative. The author of Acts pulls no punches – their motivation is the profit margin. After all, business is business and the fate of a young women seemed inconsequential in comparison. The charge brought against Paul and his associates was that they were causing confusion in the city and his accusers state that Paul and his companions were “advocating customs that are not lawful for us to accept or observe being Romans.” The elite in the city of Philippi revelled in their status as Romans, not only did it make them feel superior, but moreover they wanted to resist any change to the status quo that protected the elite and oppressed the slaves. Consequently, after some rough justice, Paul and Silas received a beating and were thrown in jail. One of my academic colleagues is conducting research into ancient jails (rather him than me!). They were particularly unpleasant places – often subterranean, poorly ventilated, no separate space for bodily functions – hence they were putrid, disease-ridden, inmates were malnourished, and such prisons were likely designed to shorten life-expectancy. We are told that Paul and Silas were confined in the innermost prison cell – a place of utter imprisonment and darkness. Yet despite the bleakness of the reported circumstances, with feet in stocks, we are told that their response was the singing of hymns in praise to God. The author then provides us with another detail that jars with our own worldview – that of a miraculous earthquake. The response of the Philippian jailer is something that only makes sense in a different context. In our society, those in positions of power tend not to accept responsibility for wrong doing. Rather, blame-shifting, equivocation, and manipulation of facts appear to be the stock in trade. By contrast, out of a heavy sense of personal guilt at failing in his task, the Philippian jailer decides to “fall on his sword” – and that was no metaphor. Paul intervenes, reassuring the man that all the prisoners are still present. Until Paul spoke, that was not obvious to the jailer given the lack of light in the prison.

The response in reported in such a mundane manner that its strangeness might allude us. The Philippian jailer recognizes that Paul and his companions as ‘sirs’ or in the Greek kyrioi, that is as ‘lords’ and asks what he can do that he might be saved. Paul’s response is a rejection of the title kyrioi ‘lords’, and instead directs the jailer to the true Lord as he instructs him to ‘believe in the Lord Jesus.’ The response is instant, the transformation striking, and the profession of faith immediate. The jailer tended to the needs of Paul and Silas, and along with his household received baptism as new believers in God.

The author of Acts has transported to a world which at first we may not recognize as being like our own. Yet it is world where violence is prevalent, people are treated as mere commodities, and the business interests of the elite are given precedence over the needs of the poor. Is it little wonder that despite its strangeness this story still speaks to us so powerfully today?

“It is not guns that kill people, it is people that kill people.” That is a slogan that sends a shiver down my spine every time I hear it. This week in Uvalde nineteen children aged between seven and ten and two adults were shot dead. A further seventeen people were injured. Some parents rushed to the school. One father interviewed described how he comforted a little girl splattered with blood. She recounted how she had run when her best friend Amerie Jo Garza was shot dead next to her. It was in that instant, while comforting another little girl, that the father heard the name of his ten year old daughter who had died as a victim of the wanton and incomprehensible violence. There have already been repeated calls, as there have been before, for reform of laws and controls on gun ownership. However, in response a Texan senator rejected the link between the prevalence of gun ownership and the unrelenting sequence of school shootings. The father who learnt of the death of his beloved Amerie asked the unanswerable, what had she ever done wrong to deserve this.

Prioritization of profits over people, politics over principles, and the right to bear arms over the right to live into adulthood are not new perspectives. For all its strangeness the vivid story from Acts is remarkably relevant. If the well-being of the weakest in society is overlooked then our communities will descend into chaos and anarchy. Our gospel reading draws to a conclusion Jesus’ lengthy farewell speech. Rather than expressing concern regarding his own fate, Jesus instead speaks about those unknown by the powerful in the world. His desire is not to retain, but to share his glory, and that those unnamed and unknown in human society might find their identity and sense of being as part of the inner life and community that exists between the Father and the Son. In this way, the love that Jesus receives from the Father is not to be guarded like a commodity, rather it is to be shared as a way of enriching all who will partake of it.

When we gather round our common table shortly we will pour out a little wine into a cup. It reminds us of a life laid down in love. But today, without detracting from Christ’s supreme act of sacrificial love, perhaps it will serve to focus our minds on other broken and needlessly lost lives. To consider ways in which we can provide a sense of belonging and home for the broken and destitute. So, from a troubled lady on the streets of Edinburgh not engaged with the dignity she deserved, to thousands of displaced, damaged and dying people in Ukraine, to desperate and despairing families in Uvalde, for Amerie Jo Garza and twenty others needlessly killed, for the healing of the nations, for the turning of swords into ploughshares, and that the Father might make his home with all those treated by the world as commodities, we ask, Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer. Amen.

Easter 5 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday May 15th

Acts 11.1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21.1-6; John 13.31-35

And it was night. And it was night.

We are still in the season of Easter but we are taken back this morning by our gospel reading from John to the night before Jesus dies – to the Last Supper. Here Jesus gives the disciples the new commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus is at supper, like so often before; a feast to foreshadow the heavenly banquet. But whereas his earlier meals had so often included those others wished to leave out, and that had got Jesus into trouble, here some one has left the meal, the building, the fellowship.

We heard it in the first words of our reading, “When Judas had gone out…” Judas has left to betray Jesus. The sentence before our Gospel reading begins, is that most redolent of comments on Judas’ departure: and it was night.

I wonder whether, at this last supper, upon hearing Jesus’ new commandment that the disciples should love one another, any one of those disciples went out into the night looking for Judas in order to extend that love to him? Did anyone fear for him, miss him, or try, even after he brought soldiers to Gethsemane, to bring Judas back, to talk him out of his shame, his anger, his rapidly deepening hell?

We don’t know. But to ask the question and imagine what that might mean, is to ask how far that love we are asked to inhabit extends: “love one another as I have loved you.”  It’s a question and challenge that has haunted and shaped Christianity ever since.

Our reading from Acts describes the first disagreement, argument, in the rapid expansion of the early church. The Church in Jerusalem summons Peter to give an account of himself. For Peter (before Paul will argue so eloquently and forcefully for it) has recognized the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing to baptism those who are not circumcised, those beyond the boundary of those previously counted as part of God’s people. Peter describes how he felt asked to partake in something beyond the pale; a fundamental taboo, something that goes to the heart of his identity, is put aside – in the name of God. He describes his confusion; and yet his overriding sense that the Spirit was at work where he thought it could not be: ‘The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.’ Peter’s confusion only begins to be clarified when sees the workings of the Holy Spirit on someone who should not be part of things.

Today is the start of Christian Aid Week. Through its more than 50 years of existence, Christian Aid has constantly challenged the churches with that question of how far our love extends, where do we imagine the Holy Spirit is at work? It does that by focusing on particular people, bringing their struggles and joys and humanity to our attention, and getting us to recognise the Holy Spirit there. If you go to Christian Aids website this year you will encounter Jessica and Janet, women from Zimbabwe. Janet Zirugo, who is now 70, describes what makes her smile: it’s seeing her grandchildren’s faces light up, she says, as she hugs them tight. For Janet has a big heart. Many of the children in her family are orphans, and she is their sole provider. ‘In my family, children look up to me and I must give them food. I am more than glad to share what I have,’ she says. In her village in Zimbabwe, Janet has seen how drought pushed her family into desperate hunger. ‘One year, there was so little food. Rains had not fallen. We ate things which we wouldn’t eat in normal times. My heart was so painful thinking that my family would die. By God’s grace we did not die. We soldiered on.’ With faith, hope and love, Janet brought her family through this painful time. Christian Aid has now provided her with drought-resistant seeds that can grow in this harsh climate, so that farm is now bursting with life: . She proudly shows us the food she has grown – bowls full of groundnuts, wild fruit, golden corn; a rainbow of colour is proudly displayed. She has built a storeroom to keep her harvest safe and secure, to help her bounce back in future droughts. As she reflects on how her life has changed, Janet sings with joy, and we are invited by Christian Aid to do so too. We rejoice with her. For night has turned to day.

‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’ The gift of the Risen Christ is that love. The Christian story always places a question mark against drawing the circle of that love too tight. Peter has the grace to discern the Spirit where he thought the Spirit was not. For the Spirit is the bond of love, that which places someone inside the circle rather than outside. And we should be constantly surprised by the Spirit.

In Revelation 21, on the very final pages of the Bible, in that great vision of the consummation of all things, we hear how some day, one day, when the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven decked out like a bride approaching her breathless husband, God will set out a great marriage feast. God will throw the party to end all parties at which God will wipe away every tear. Then will all mourning come to an end – no more tears, no more pain.

Will Judas be present at that great feast, along with Jessica and Janet, and you and I? Dare we hope that? I suspect we can. He will sit amongst all the rest of us who bear the scars of our own betrayals beneath our white robes. For so long as Judas remains out there in the night, wandering alone or swinging lifeless in the breeze, there will be tears and aching in the community where his place is still set at the table, but where he does not sit. When he has been found, then I know that I, too, shall have been found, and forgiven, and loved.

A foretaste of that heavenly banquet is set before us today. We will shortly remember once more that night of the new commandment, as we also look ahead to the day of its fulfilment. And we gather with Janet, singing for joy; we celebrate our reconciliation one with another,  and we live in hope while we wait for the day when every place at our table will be filled. Amen.

Easter 4. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley – 8th May 2022

This week we meet Dorcas. Dorcas is one of my favourite New Testament characters. She’s the first woman to be described as a disciple – although she was clearly not the first woman to be a disciple. One of the things we learn about her is that she has a talent for dressmaking – and is clearly skilled at that – the women around her were very keen to show off the garments that she had made. As someone who aspires to be better at sewing than I am, I greatly admire Dorcas and her gift.

Let’s think about the Scripture, about why Dorcas appears in the Acts of the Apostles and what she has to teach us. The reading opens with a couple of facts about Dorcas. We’re not told where she’s from, or what she does or even much about who she is. What we learn is that she was a disciple and she was devoted to good works and acts of charity. We are meeting a woman who is known for living her faith. The fact that we don’t learn till later in the reading that she had particular practical gifts gives an even heavier weight to this information.

The story of the healing of Dorcas comes immediately after the healing of Aeneas. Peter was in and around Joppa and performed both of these healing miracles – the story would suggest pretty well back-to-back. Many theologians would suggest that the story’s primary purpose is to tell us something about Peter and the movement of the Holy Spirit in his life. I can’t argue with that big picture perspective, but I want to focus first on the smaller more detailed picture, and not to lose sight of a rare story about a named woman.

Devoted to good works and acts of charity. Let’s unpick that a bit. Not just interested, but devoted to good works, to making a difference in the world. Seeing need and responding. But remember, this isn’t actually the first thing we’re told. The very first piece of information we get is that she is a disciple of Jesus Christ. The information about her passion for good works is secondary. One follows from the other, her activities are linked with, perhaps an expression of, her discipleship.

As twenty first century disciples, the choices we make about how and where to direct our energies follow on from our commitment to turn to Jesus and to follow him. We’re reminded of that in our Gospel reading: I know my sheep and they follow me.

The worldwide church keeps this week as Vocations Sunday – taking that imagery of Jesus as the Good Shepherd to inspire and encourage those who are called, in particular, to ordained ministries. We’re asked to pray for those who are exploring such a call.
Vocations Sunday was first designated in 1964 by the Roman Catholic Church and has been adopted by other denominations over the years.

Some of you were perhaps worshipping in this Cathedral in 1964 – I imagine it was a very different set up from the one we have now. There was a time when our Dioceses were staffed with many more clergy than we have now. A time when the only voices you would hear on a Sunday morning would be those of male clergy. A time when clergy did, and lay people were done to.
That was neither right nor wrong; it wasn’t necessarily better or worse than the situation we live with today – it was different. For many reasons, there are fewer clergy; fewer people called into full time ministry. The church is resourced in a different way. It can be easy to assume that different way is inferior, or an unfortunate response to a changing world.

But just as the healing stories in the chapter of Acts that we read today tell us something about the movement of the Spirit in Peter’s life, so the changing situation in the church may be telling us something about the movement of the Spirit in our lives. If this Cathedral was in a different financial position, would our first priority be to increase our clergy resource? If the Diocese had more clergy than churches, would deployment be different? Perhaps not.

One of the massive changes in relatively recent years has been the increasing involvement of lay people and the recognition and valuing of the gifts of people who are not in authorised ministries but who bring something distinctive.
Those of us who are privileged to exercise a full-time ministry depend on the support and input of those who freely give their time and their energies.

Vocations Sunday has its roots in a church that was clergy focussed and clergy dependent. I would like to think that we are now rooting ourselves in a church that honours and supports the ministry of all its people, a church that recognises that there are complementary and interdependent roles, a church that seeks to become something that is more than the sum of its parts, that seeks to be the body of Christ in this place and time. I hope that we are moving towards becoming a church that sees its primary mission as outward facing and inclusive. A church that has a commitment both to those within its walls and those without and that recognises that the work of mission is the work of the whole church, not a task for the clergy alone.

We are all disciples, and as disciples of Jesus Christ we are all called to follow him. Dorcas rooted her exemplary care for others in her discipleship. She found a way to make it not about her, but about people who were more vulnerable and amongst whom she was able to make a difference.

One of the tasks for those who are in ordained ministries is to support others to fulfil their potential as disciples. That means recognising the giftedness of others, it means encouraging people to use those gifts, it may mean supporting people to discover gifts that have so far been hidden. It means honouring those who have gifts that are very different from our own.

One of the tasks for those who are lay members of the church is to recognise that some disciples have a particular calling, a calling to leadership and service within the church, a calling that flourishes when it is affirmed and supported.

The task of discerning who might be called to be the next generation of clergy is one for all of us. Clergy are called by the whole church to serve the whole church. They are called into a distinctive role, but that role is only fulfilled when they have the support and trust of the people they serve.

Vocations Sunday is a day that makes a particular demand of each one of us. Vocations, whether ordained or lay, only serve the community well when they are affirmed and owned by that community. Vocations Sunday demands that we take our discipleship seriously as a first step and then, and only then, discern the expression of discipleship to which we are called. Vocations Sunday also requires us to honour and respect the expressions of discipleship to which others are called. We are called to different kinds of good works and acts of charity, but each one is a call from God. By honouring every call, we enable the formation of the Body of Christ in this space and the lived expression of our collective calling.

Easter 3 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 1st May

Acts 9.1-20, John 21.1-19

We are celebrating the season of Easter, of Christ’s resurrection. But what we celebrate is not just Christ’s resurrection, but that of the disciples too, and of ourselves. The resurrection of Christ is what brings a new community into being, a community of those turned around from their previous experience of grief, guilt or even violence. In Eastertide we always read, Sunday by Sunday, through the book of Acts, alongside hearing the resurrection appearances of Christ from the Gospels. We do that because the story of the early church set out in Acts is the other side of the coin to those resurrection appearances that are at the heart of our Easter proclamation: the resurrection of Christ brings into life this new community that witnesses to the new life made possible in Christ.

Our readings this morning are two of the most poignant and profound witnesses to the shape of that new life. It would be possible to spend a lot longer than the next 10 minutes pondering these two stories, but let me draw out two perhaps neglected details from them, that I think illuminate what the resurrection, what that new life, might mean for us.

Let’s start with John’s Gospel and that wonderful intimate encounter between Jesus and Peter. Peter has returned to fishing, to what he knew before he started to follow Jesus. We have returned to the start of our Gospels: here is Peter fishing, and Jesus by a lakeside. The story will once again finish with Jesus saying to Peter, ‘Follow me.’ But it’s not simply a repeat – a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since that initial encounter by the lakeside. Peter has already enthusiastically followed, and failed. He has followed Jesus all the way to Jerusalem, and then deserted him at that most desperate time of arrest, and trial and crucifixion. And not just deserted Jesus, but, when threatened by association, he has denied him three times. And so this encounter on the lakeside is heavy with that history, that memory. Peter has gone back fishing, to his old life, but the old innocence is not available.

And then, at the lakeside, this stranger persuades them to fish on the other side of the boat, and they are suddenly overwhelmed by the catch. And Peter finds the echoes of the last few years rising within him. The other disciple says to him, ‘It is the Lord!’ And then John’s Gospel includes a very odd detail: ‘When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake.’ I’m sorry – he put on some clothes and then jumped into the lake? Does that not strike you as odd? I can only make sense of that little phrase by imagining that Peter is not only literally naked, but feels naked in the presence of this returning man – a man who the last he knew had died an agonizing death a few hours after he had betrayed his friendship and everything that he thought mattered, by denying that he ever knew him. That is the memory which haunts him, which defines the first thing he does on hearing that it is Jesus – he clothes himself to cover the nakedness and vulnerability he feels. And yet it is that memory that Jesus will probe; he will metaphorically strip Peter naked, as he asks him three times, ‘Do you love me?’ Peter’s reply becomes ever more affronted and defensive, until he realizes, under that loving gaze, that Jesus is not evoking the memory to accuse, but to heal; not in judgement, but to free Peter of the burden. The crucified and risen one, comes not with a pointing finger but with the forgiveness that restores Peter, that brings new life in place of simply the return of the old; that re-clothes Peter. And it is in that new life, that Peter is asked once again, to – ‘follow me’, by feeding the lambs, tending the sheep; being that compassionate presence that Peter is encountering for himself in the Risen Jesus.

Now I’m delighted that you’ve all come fully clothed to our encounter today with the Risen Christ. Many of you in your Sunday best; some of us get to put on very fancy clothes indeed. But that shouldn’t hide the fact that we might be called into a similar encounter in the vulnerable places of our souls; we bring to our encounter with the Risen Christ today our own memories of desertion and denial, our own sense of failure and inadequacy; and we may find ourselves stripped bare. But there, in that honesty and nakedness, we hear words of forgiveness and healing, and new life.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
such a joy as none can move;
such a love as none can part;
such a heart as joys in love.

The story of Saul on the road to Damascus involves a very different encounter. The man of violence is thrown off his horse, as the voice of those he persecutes echoes around him. This moment is often described as the conversion of Saul, the moment that sees a dramatic turnaround in this man who has been ‘breathing threats and murder against the disciples of Jesus.’  But actually the encounter on the Damascus Road simply blinds Saul, so that he has to be led by the hand into Damascus. And he is in that state of darkness, unable to eat or drink, for 3 days – surely no accidental detail, but an echo of Good Friday to Easter. And what brings him into new life, what completes the encounter begun on the Damascus Road, is the courage of a disciple, of Ananias.  Ananias is asked in a dream to go to a street named Straight, and make what has been crooked straight; to reach out and touch and heal the man of Tarsus. Ananias is understandably wary; but he does go, overcomes his fear and loathing, and reaches out, and touches Saul; and it is at that moment that ‘the scales drop from Saul’s eyes’. The moment of conversion, of new life, might have begun on the Damascus Road, but it is here, in this moment of connection, that Saul recognises that beyond his newly found vulnerability, there is a different calling mapped out for him – one in which Christ and the community represented by Ananias, are central.

Come my Way, my Truth, my Life:
such a way as gives us breath;
such a truth as ends all strife:
such a life as conquers death.

Ivy, today, in her baptism, is invited to begin the journey of new life in the Risen Christ. Parents, godparents, you today make promises that will allow that new life to take shape. Each of us, in our baptism, was invited into that journey into new life that is Christ’s gift. Sometimes that will take the shape of Peter – we will journey quietly and intimately with Christ to the vulnerable places within to hear there words of forgiveness and healing; sometimes that new life will be like that given to Paul, overthrowing us, turning us around, revealing our dependency and need of those we previously looked down on. And sometimes, that new life will be like that given to Ananias, to reach out and welcome, offer words of healing. In our baptism service today, we, the congregation gathered here, will all perform that task as we welcome Ivy into the new life of Christ, promise to share our faith with her; so that together we walk in the new life of Christ.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
such a light as shows a feast;
such a feast as mends in length;
such a strength as makes a guest.

Easter 2. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley – 24th April 2022

The shorthand for this week’s Gospel is that this is the Thomas week – doubting Thomas who needed to see with his own eyes before he was able to believe. But Thomas isn’t the only character in this morning’s story – in fact he only appears in the second half. The story begins with a frightened group of disciples huddled together behind locked doors because they were afraid. This year, perhaps for the first time, I feel that I have a different kind of insight into what it might be like to be hiding from people who wish you harm. None of us could fail to be moved as we watch people emerging from basements in Ukraine; their fear is palpable, their eyes tell us almost more than we can bear to witness. We’re looking into the face of fear.

So to that locked room, that place of relative safety, where our story unfurls. In the first section, the disciples who are present are immediately certain that this is Jesus. We’re told that they rejoiced. Their mood shifted, their lives were changed. The second part of the story recounts the encounter with Thomas who finds that he isn’t convinced by what his colleagues tell him.
So Jesus appears for a second time and has a physical encounter with Thomas – reach out your hand and put it in my side – and he then finds himself convinced and able to believe.

We can be very quick to identify, perhaps to over-identify, with Thomas. We are all too aware of our own times of doubt and questioning – whether we have the courage to voice them or not. I’d like to suggest this morning that we are at times like Thomas and at other times like the other disciples – and that our journey towards God requires us to embrace both of those ways of responding.

Let’s think first about the frightened group of disciples. A group of people who were confused, unable to make any sense of what they had just lived through. They were people who had journeyed with Jesus, who had witnessed his healing miracles, who had heard his prophetic voice first hand. They knew who he was. And then everything was turned on its head. They found themselves without leadership or purpose. What on earth would they do now.
Were they simply going to split up as a group and return to wherever they had come from? Would they go back to catching fish or working with wood or taking care of household responsibilities?

It’s not difficult to imagine how they felt. We know in our own lives times when we have no idea which way to turn, times when we feel rudderless, as though we could drift one way or another – and perhaps don’t even care which way that is. Major life events leave us in a position where we need to readjust, to reassess our options and to find a new focus. That’s true of positive events in our lives as well as the negative ones. Marriage, the birth of a baby, the responsibility of becoming a homeowner, the shift from student to being in the workplace – all of these require adjustment, not just of the shape of our days but in how we approach them. And of course, the same applies to traumatic events, death, redundancy, serious illness and so on.

What made and continues to make the difference though, is the presence of the Risen Christ. We’re reminded today that, like those disciples, we’re not alone in any of what life throws at us. Our Resurrection faith tells us that the risen Christ lives and moves and has his being with us and amongst us. The risen Christ breathed the Holy Spirit upon those first disciples, he gave them a gift, they were changed.

At each and every celebration of the Eucharist we pray: send your Holy Spirit upon us. Send your Holy Spirit upon us. Presumably we pray those words because we trust that God will hear and respond – if not, why would we bother? Our lives are transformed, our fears are allayed, our focus is helped when we allow ourselves to accept the gift that God bestows upon us, when we allow ourselves to be changed.

Lived experience would suggest that those moments of deep connection are often followed by moments of doubt and self-questioning and uncertainty. St Ignatius writes about this in his spiritual exercises, telling us that times of consolation will inevitably be followed by times of desolation – that our journeys of faith are cyclical.

So let’s move from the rejoicing of the first part of our story to the questioning that defines the second section. One moment we are in that place of confident truth and the next we are looking for signs and certainties. Our human nature perhaps encourages us to berate ourselves for being in that second space, the space where we are more insecure and needing to be reassured, to be pointed towards the evidence that it’s all true. But this morning’s Gospel story has something important to teach us about the complementary nature of those two positions. We journey from one to the other, and back again, and each of those places is a place of learning. A place of learning about self and a place of learning about the nature of God.

The times when we are desperately seeking something from God are often times of significant spiritual growth. They are times when we find ourselves digging deep, times when even a glimmer of light and grace makes a significant difference. The move out of doubt towards belief, is a profound journey and one that we travel time and again. It’s a journey that can bring us to the place where we find ourselves declaring: my Lord and my God.

This morning’s Gospel holds in balance those two sides of our human nature, the internal journeying that draws us towards and away from the source of truth and life. And as we journey there will inevitably be sticking points and more fluid points; there will be moments when it all seems rather clear and moments when we can’t manage to discern anything at all. We’re not asked by God to have blind, unexamined faith. Rather, we are asked to recognise and respond to our God whom we encounter in the risen Christ.

Augustine said that the divine nature is within each one of us. We encounter that divine nature when we allow ourselves to honour and respect that which is of God within each and every person we meet. It is only in so doing that we are able to honour and respect that which is of God within ourselves. Faith isn’t something out there that we simply need to go out and seek, and bring home when we find it. Faith is that place within each one of us where the encounter with the divine becomes real and engaging. That place where we can fully be ourselves and God can be God.

Whether we are in a place of fear, a place of surprise and joy or a place of uncertainty and questioning, the resurrection Christ is there with us – reaching out and seeking to engage. Our task is simply to recognise his presence and to give ourselves permission to accept the gift that allows us to be transformed.


Good Friday – sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley. 15th April 2022

This has been a Holy Week like none other that I have lived through. As we’ve journeyed through the events and emotions of those last days of Jesus’ life, we’ve seen the story mirrored in real time in our news media. We hear on a daily basis reports about condemnation and humiliation; about degradation and lack of agency. And yet at the same time we’re hearing about kindness and courage and compassion. The unfolding of the tragic situation in Ukraine, and – let’s not forget – in other parts of the world, is serving as a good reminder that whatever the potential for evil in the lives and minds of human beings, that potential sits alongside the potential for acts of love and grace in even the bleakest of situations.

Holy Week is always an emotional roller coaster, and this year more than ever. We respond to it in different ways, depending on what else is having an impact for us. For most of us, there have been days when we’ve felt completely overloaded; days when watching yet another news report from a conflict zone was more than we could manage. Our 24/7 news world means that we can easily be bombarded with tragedy.  And allowing ourselves to sink into a place of despair doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t help the people who are living in the midst of conflict and, actually, it doesn’t help us – it just reminds us how little we can do to change the situation.

So what are we doing here as we gather on Good Friday? It’s easy to turn all of our focus to the act of brutality that is central to today’s story. But that is reductionist. The journey to Calvary, the falls and the challenges serve to show us in very stark terms that Jesus shared in the whole range of human experience and emotion. When we are struggling to put one foot in front of the other, the Good Friday story reminds us that Jesus knew that pain. When we see humiliation and degradation of human beings, we know that Jesus lived through similar experiences. The Incarnate God whose presence we honour in each and every act of worship, experienced human behaviour at its best and at its worst. The Jesus we meet at Calvary modelled for us what it is to be resilient – to see the story through to its bitter and desperate end.

That end is central to the Christian story – but it’s not the whole story or the final page of the story. Good Friday is the day when we are starkly reminded of the capacity that we have – not just those people out there in Ukraine or at Calvary, but each one of us – the capacity within humanity for behaving in ways that we didn’t think was possible. To a large extent, people find themselves drawn into committing atrocities because of the situation they are in. There is a clear parallel between the Roman soldiers and the Russian conscripts – young men for whom the stark options are kill or be killed.

Today isn’t the end of the Jesus story. The destruction of Mariupol isn’t the end of the Ukraine story. Our Gospel story takes us through death to resurrection, to a place of hope and life; a place where brutality doesn’t have the final word, where human dignity re-emerges. We see dignity in the women and other disciples who find a way to remain at the foot of the cross until the bitter end – and then to take care of his body. They are evidencing the human ability for resilience that we, and they, have already witnessed in Jesus.
We see that same resilience in Volodymir Zelensky and in those who refuse to give up their land. We see it in the defiance of Afghan women and girls; in the bravery of truth-telling Russian journalists, in the lives of people who came to the UK as refugees.

Good Friday is a day to remind ourselves of our own capacity for resilience. Following the way of the cross isn’t easy or always straightforward. There will be times when we stumble; times when we encounter the worst examples of human behaviour. We are called to walk with Jesus – to find a way to keep going; to find a way to remind ourselves that God promises so much more than the tragedy that threatens to envelop us; to dig deep and trust that God will resource and sustain us through this chapter of our lives and beyond.

Maundy Thursday – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway

Exodus 12.1-14; Psalm 116; 1 Corinthians 11.23-26; John 13.1-17, 31b-35

Jesus answered Peter: ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’

Last Saturday evening I was privileged to attend the Dunedin Consort’s performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. A packed Cathedral sat spellbound as Bach’s re-telling and meditation on the Passion played out before us; the varying emotions captured so beautifully. On Sunday morning, after the entry into Jerusalem accompanied by waving palms, we participated in a simple and direct telling of the Passion, with music by Victoria. And on Sunday afternoon, our choir performed another telling of, and reflection upon, the Passion story – this time the Victorian masterpiece that is Stainer’s Crucifixion. All very different, reflecting different times and theologies, yet all engaging with, and engaging us in, the Passion.

And of course, this Holy Week is the week of the passion: our daily readings, telling of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, his confrontations and provocations of authority there, ratcheting up the tension as we approach the events of this night and tomorrow. And through all this, and awfully, we have a sense of the passion being played out in Ukraine: in unimaginable and needless suffering; in yet more evidence of the cruelty and violence of which we are capable, that is our tragedy.

And tonight we reach the Upper Room, as Jesus celebrates the Feast of the Passover with his disciples and friends.

‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’

That series of Passions, performed, read, experienced, all too real; those passions have revealed yet again the depths, the many dimensions of this story, of this walk to the cross. Those depths are not just in the figure of Christ, as he negotiates that rising tension and cauldron – I realize that ‘negotiates’ is the wrong verb here; inadequate to the task of describing his implacable, defiant, steadfast walk in faith toward cross and death; it is a walk that reveals depths to the man. But the depths are not just of his humanity, but are seen in the varied response of the disciples too: Judas’ betrayal – from misplaced, disappointed idealism perhaps?; Peter’s violent defiance at Jesus’ arrest, giving way to his heart-breaking denial that he has ever known the man; the other disciples’ desertion in the night; the faithful, powerless wait of the women who will stand at the foot of the cross, and watch. And so the Passion catches us up in that human drama once again; we find ourselves revealed there, as well as hearing the echoes with what happens elsewhere in our world.

And in the midst of that Passion we reach tonight the Upper Room, and sit down to a meal with Jesus and his disciples.

‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’

In the midst of this broiling drama, Jesus offers two acts which will shape our response to these events.

First, Jesus offers himself in bread and wine. Just as he will shortly and forcibly be given into the hands of others, to be broken, so he first, freely, gives himself over into the hands of the disciples in broken bread and poured out wine, his body and his blood.

‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’

And in John’s account of that Last Supper which we just heard, Jesus also gets up from the table and washes his disciples’ feet, the actions of a servant, the prelude to hospitality, the moment that welcomes and creates a guest. ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me’ he tells Peter and the others. Just as in bread and wine he hands himself over to the disciples, so that they might be the body and blood of Christ, so in washing their feet, he incarnates what that becoming Christ looks like, that we might have a share in him.

‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’

It is this moment, the memory of this Last Supper, that the disciples will return to, when after Sunday’s resurrection they realize that this week is not just a story of human extremes, of the depths of human passion, love, betrayal, denial and forgiveness. It is all that, but it is also the divine story, of God coming to share our human suffering and love, and in the midst of it, to offer God’s self.

In Christ your Son our life and yours are brought together in a wonderful exchange. He made his home among us that we might for ever dwell in you.

This Last Supper, the giving by Christ of himself into the hands of the disciples, is what creates the church, what creates us; it is the moment that we return to, re-member, week by week, to be re-made as Christ’s body. For it is how the divine coming, the divine arc of redemption at the heart of this most holy week, continues on. The passion we inhabit this week does not merely reflect the heights and depths of our humanity; through it, the divine evokes a response, to re-create us and our world anew.

And so alongside the bread and wine we receive as Christ’s body; tonight we re-member the footwashing, perform it amongst us as a window onto the way that God would have us be: an icon of the creation of hospitality and service which incarnates Christ’s way, and gives us a share in that divine life. We are called to do likewise; and not just us, but the whole world – for here, in these acts of hospitality, love and service, we find our humanity and therefore our freedom.

In a world of rampant egos; where anything is permissible to justify the ascent to highest office or position of power; where brute force is said to determine what matters, to bend history to its will; in a world where humans are swept aside in unimaginable suffering; in the midst of the Passion, God offers another way that re-creates a new humanity, the church, us: a story of service and footwashing, of hospitality and love. And in that way, that divine life, is our freedom and our life.

‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’