Easter 6 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 9th May

Acts 10.44-48; 1 John 5.1-6; John 15.9-17

Jesus said:

‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. … I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. … I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends.’

I have called you friends.

Last week the Vice Provost movingly reflected on what it might mean for each of us, and the Cathedral, to abide in God’s love. This week I want us to think about what it might mean to find ourselves as friends of Christ, and in that friendship, friends of one another. I have called you friends.

In the farewell discourse that we heard in our Gospel today, Jesus places this image of friendship at the heart of the new community made possible in him. We often concentrate on the words ‘no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ That moving testimony of the power of friendship is of course important, and many in the course of history have borne witness to it, but it’s also true that we may find it hard to relate to that statement ourselves, as the calling to lay down one’s life comes rarely, or rarely that starkly or literally. And yet, as friends is how Jesus characterises all who follow him.

When thinking about friendship, we might use the word love, but I suspect more often we would talk about liking someone, we’re friends because we like them. One of the most interesting theologians writing today, James Alison, in his book, On Being Liked, reflects on the difference between loving and liking, particularly in the context where the word love can be over-used, or actually end up meaning something else:

The word ‘like’, he writes, is rather more difficult to twist into a lie than the word ‘love’, because we know when someone likes us. We can tell because they enjoy being with us, alongside us, want to share our time and company. What I would like to suggest is that if our understanding of being loved does not include being liked, or at least being prepared to learn to be liked, then there’s a good chance that we’re talking about the sort of love that can slip a double bind over us, that is really saying to us ‘My love for you means that I will like you if you become someone else.’

Alison suggests that seeing ourselves as friends of Christ, as being liked by Christ, helps avoid the danger of thinking that the love God has for us, is love conditional on us becoming someone other than who we are. But, Jesus says, I have called you friends.

C. S. Lewis wrote this about friendship: Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself … The point that Lewis is making is that friendship is a relationship rooted in freedom, not one bound by duty, or office, or function. We choose to be friends with someone. Friends allow you ‘to be’; friendship is based on affection and respect; it is joyful, at its best calling forth a mutual delight. It is also rooted in trust: the worst thing to happen in friendship is betrayal.

Friendship is about reciprocity. It’s another reason why it’s helpful to imagine ourselves as being friends of Christ, liked by God, rather than simply loved by God. Because, unlike love, there is no sense of charity about friendship; it’s not about being done to, but about something created together, and that is its strength.

Aristotle said, ‘Without friends no one would choose to live even though he possessed all other goods.’ That’s a statement that has echoes of the pearl of great price: friendship as something allied to the kingdom, which puts everything else into perspective, something nothing material can bring you.

And the church has at its heart that most basic activity of friends: a meal shared  together. On the road to Emmaus, the two disciples do not recognise the Risen Christ, but find themselves making friends with him, inviting him to share a meal with him, and then recognising him in the moment when their new-found friend and guest suddenly becomes the host and breaks the bread.

In that moment the disciples learn anew that they are indeed friends of Christ. But this is not something to hold to themselves, instead that friendship forms a new community, the Church. And we are called into that same friendship too.

Now that can be testing, because we also think of friendship as being spontaneous – like attracts like. Friendship can be about the clique of the insiders. Our reading from Acts this morning concerns that pivotal moment in the early Church, where Peter realises the circle of Christ’s friendship, given in the gift of the Holy Spirit, is much wider than he had realised. And that that calls him into new friendships, new relationships in that gift of the Spirit. The work of the Holy Spirit is crucial – the spirit of freedom that takes away our fear (the fear of those who are unlike us), and open us up to others. And so the early Church grows, and we grow, as, in our joyful life together, we offer friendship, discover friendship, with the unloved, the unlikely.

That placing of friendship at the heart of who we are may seem naïve, or of little consequence. And yet, if we take it seriously, even as we relish the joy of it, we also realise the centrality of relationships of trust and mutuality to human joy and flourishing.  And that is not just true personally, but in the ways we structure society. The friendship found here needs to transcend and overcome the divisions which are all too obvious; it needs to challenge the story that we all basically out for ourselves and what we can get. For Christ has called us friends, and in that friendship is our life. Amen.

Easter 5 – sermon preached online by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley

From the first letter of John: God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

Those who abide in love… not those who know love or who express love or who share love, but those who abide in love. To abide in love, to live in accordance with; perhaps to immerse oneself in; to shape and frame life and its decisions within. This isn’t about an expression of love as and when an emotion arises within us, it’s about making love central to who and how we are, making the outworking of our love for God central to the ways that we engage with other people.

And we do that in a whole range of ways. We express love for other people on an individual basis. That may be for a partner or children; our parents or siblings; our closest friends or extended family. I tend to think about a kind of spider’s web of connections and some of those bonds are very close and very tight and some of them are a bit looser and more distanced, but there is a collective forming of almost a bubble of care and support that is an expression of love and compassion.

There is almost nothing we wouldn’t do for the people we love most. When children are sick, parents will often express that they would willingly swap places and experience suffering themselves rather than finding themselves watching a child deal with pain and the challenges of ill health. People find that they are able to achieve things they never thought they could manage if the alternative is that a loved one is harmed in some way. So there are stories about people finding herculean strength for instance, or bravery that they had no idea they could access.

Moving out from that innermost circle of people whom we could name and with whom we tend to have reciprocal relationships, there are the many people we know a little, or perhaps don’t know at all but to whom we can offer a moment of kindness, a working out of God’s love, whether it’s named as such or not. We may express those acts of care on a 1:1 basis – helping out a neighbour, speaking to someone at the bus stop – or to a group of people. Listening with the Samaritans; cooking for homeless people; helping at the Food Bank. All are expressions of our love for God’s people, attempts to make a difference in the lives of people whom we don’t know.

The next step away from our inner circle of love is when we join with other people to express love and care. That may be a practical expression – working with a team to collect for Christian Aid week for instance or it may be at the level of trying to make a difference at a governmental or strategic level. Supporting campaigns for prisoners of conscience; taking the time to join with others to have a collective voice about something that matters. All ways of expressing our love for other people and our love for our Creator.

Within the Cathedral, we’ve been trying to develop ways of expressing something important about God’s love as we build partnerships with external agencies. One good example of that is Edinburgh Street Assist who are working out of the Walpole Hall two nights a week. They are teams of volunteers, some of whom are medics and paramedics; all of whom are trained in first aid and mental health first aid, and who take care of people in the city centre who have become incapacitated. They work with the police and the city council to offer non-judgemental and appropriate care and support to people who’ve got into difficulties.  They’ve told me that it’s important to them to be supported by us in prayer; it’s important for us that our space is used by groups that are seeking to make a difference for other people.

On a personal level, we know what makes a difference – whether or not we always do it – and we recognise expressions of love and care when they come our way. But our Cathedral isn’t just our gathered community, it’s also our buildings and land and the space that we occupy within our city. We occupy a large and imposing building and we’re blessed to have a considerable amount of land that surrounds it. Lots of people love and care for the building and the grounds in a range of ways. People volunteer to help look after our building; they see things that need to be done and just get on and do them. Volunteers ensure that are grounds are maintained and developed. And the building itself experiences random acts of kindness. Over the past few weeks, someone has been bringing in vases of fresh flowers. I’ve never seen the donor so far, but I have seen the gift they have left – and the colour and pleasure that those flowers bring.

A Cathedral, a building that is open every day of the week has a particular role within its wider community. We have a calling within our city, to offer space and hospitality, to witness to the love of God, and we evidence that in who we welcome and how we are able to offer that welcome. So a building that is obviously cared for; grounds that have been tended and thoughtfully planted; notices that give some idea of our ideals and direction of travel – all of that tells people that we have something here that matters to us, that is loved and cherished – and that we want to share. Because love isn’t something to hold to ourselves; it doesn’t flourish if we hide it away and try to protect it from the world out there. Love for one another, love for the places that are important to us, love for the risen Christ, love for the Creator God – love grows and flourishes when it’s given oxygen.

That verse from the letter of John: those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them. As that is true for individuals and the important people in their lives, it is also true for significant places in our lives. People talk about loving their homes; loving particular holiday destinations; loving favourite places to walk or picnic or whatever.  And many people love this Cathedral. As we find ways to point towards the love that is bestowed upon our building, we are pointing towards the love that we experience for and from God. This isn’t an optional extra, it’s a fundamental responsibility. We come into this place knowing that we are loved by God. Week by week we say, ‘we love because God loved us first’. God loved us first and we then have a responsibility to create an environment within which that love can flourish, an environment within which our wider community can know that each one of God’s people is loved equally.

Love is at the heart of our story and our witness. Love abides within our Cathedral and its external space, love that is of God and points to God. As we were reminded at the end of our reading: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.  Our mission as a Cathedral community and building is to witness to that love and in so doing to witness to the love of God in our midst.

 

Easter 4 – Sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 25th April

Acts 4.5-12; Psalm 23; 1John 3.16-24; John 10.11-18

Jesus said: ‘I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.’

The Good Shepherd – not an image many of us are particularly familiar with in our day to day life. I’m not aware of many shepherds, or sheep for that matter, here in the West End of Edinburgh. It is, however, a well-known image from the bible, no doubt because it emerges among an agrarian people, for whom the skills involved in tending and guarding sheep would have been much more familiar. The Good Shepherd is the one who protects, guides and cares for sheep he knows intimately; he is the source of authority too, the one in whom the sheep trust, and so feel safe.

It’s an image with a long history. Jesus’ use of it surely has Psalm 23 in the background – that beloved psalm we just heard sung, that was no doubt just as beloved in Jesus’ day. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. He revives my soul. Here is a basic, central, image for imagining God and how God is toward us – God who provides every want that we genuinely need, who leads us in good paths and revives the soul, seeks out the good pasture and is our support and comfort in troubling times and the shadow of death.

The Good Shepherd is not only in scripture an image of God, however. It also is used by the prophets to critique those who have failed to tend the flock as they ought, those leaders who have failed in their duty to nourish and sustain the people – whose leadership is in stark contrast to that paradigm of the Good Shepherd. Here is an example from the prophet Ezekiel:

‘The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds.’

Jesus’ meditation from John’s Gospel that we heard this morning, draws on that long tradition and understanding of what a Good Shepherd looks like and is. When Jesus says, ‘I am the Good Shepherd’, John is making an explicit claim about the divinity of Jesus – here is the one in whom the Good Shepherd that is God is known, in whom the Father is met and seen. And that claim to divinity is made even more explicit by the use of the I am form. The most holy name for God, heard by Moses in the Burning Bush, is “I am who I am”. That elusive name, I am, is given content by the sayings of Jesus that punctuate John’s Gospel – I am the light, the way, the truth and the life, the bread of heaven, I am the Good Shepherd.

And that image of the Good Shepherd, drawing on its deep roots and connections to the agrarian lifestyle of many, became a vital image too in the early church. The earliest pictorial representations of Jesus that we have – in fourth century mosaics – are of Christ as the shepherd with the lamb slung across his shoulders, the lamb who has strayed but is now brought home rejoicing. From the Old Testament through the New and into the early history of the church, the Good Shepherd is a central image for knowing who God, and then Jesus, is, and therefore what the church is all about, how we are called to live. It may well be, in our more urban settings, where the pastoral is either little known or at least distanced; or is romanticised, so that the sharp edges – the real times of trouble and fear that call forth the skill and care of the Shepherd – are lost; it may well be that it feels a distant image, no longer central.

As we stand on the brink of a Scottish Parliamentary election, however, the questions posed by Ezekiel’s use of the image are bound to strike us. How do those who now seek political office, whose calling is the welfare, the wellbeing and the wholeness of the people – how do they measure up to the image of the Shepherd? If we thought that despair at politicians was a modern phenomenon we have only to listen to Ezekiel.

But to explore the image of the Good Shepherd is not simply about castigating politicians; I fear that is all too easy in our cynical age. The image of the Good Shepherd certainly asks questions about the motive and desire of those who seek to lead and gain our trust: are they more like the hired hand; seeking high office simply for personal gain and egotistical ambition, in it for themselves? Or are they able to articulate, and more importantly display, a sense of calling, so that leadership is offered in the public service, from a motive of wanting to make a genuine contribution to the common good and because they care. Those are important and legitimate questions to bring to our consideration of who we might vote for. Today, as well as the Good Shepherd, the church invites us to mark Vocations Sunday: the language of vocation suggests that life of service, of losing oneself to find oneself, of the possibility that every life might find meaning in service of others. That sense of vocation has been re-discovered in this past year in the stresses and strains of the pandemic, in the re-valuing of meaningful life; but it is also in danger of constantly being lost in the stories we hear and tell of cynical self-interest. Whilst we shouldn’t be naïve about personal ambition – and the warnings of Ezekiel may well ring in our ears – we also need to recognise that public service does still drive much politics, however cynical a reading we might be usually offered.

But perhaps the even more vital question posed by the image of the Good Shepherd, is one that is addressed to all of us. It is the question of where we draw the boundaries of the flock. Who is it that the shepherd is called to serve, and who will learn to trust; in the service of whom, does the Shepherd lay down their life? That question, of how we create and serve a cohesive society, a flock, who have sense of themselves as a whole, as well as as individuals – that is a crucial question for our own times. Do we do that by drawing the boundaries tighter, being clearer about who is in and who is out? And yet, Jesus the Good Shepherd lived out that care of the Father by meeting and dining and healing those thought to be beyond the walls of the flock – the sinners and outcasts. He lays down his life because that refusal to limit God’s love has drawn him into conflict with a leadership who constantly want to draw the boundaries tighter. Jesus the Good Shepherd asks awkward questions of the ways we limit God’s love. As 1 John puts it: How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?

Those are hard questions to negotiate and work out in the political realm, I have no doubt. And they are not simply questions to put politicians on the spot, but questions for all of us, in our own vocation and building up of the common good. For the Good Shepherd is an image of the Risen Christ – and something we are all called therefore to embody and live out, a way of living into which we are formed by the act of sharing a meal together around this table. The Good Shepherd is not something simply to castigate or despair or judge our politicians by; but a vision we are called to enact and live out in our time and place, our own vocation. Amen.

Easter 3 sermon preached online by the Vice Provost. 18th April 2021

1 John 3: 1-7; Luke 24: 13-35

We catch up this morning with those two disciples as they trudge along on the road to Emmaus. It seems easy to relate to how they are feeling – perhaps especially this year which does feel like a year that we’ve trudged through, waiting for something to emerge that will be a gamechanger. And for us, that is happening; we’re seeing the signs of new life. Life is beginning to open up and we can begin to look a little bit further ahead than the very immediate future.

The disciples though weren’t looking ahead to better times, they were completely caught up in the moment. In many ways they were blinkered; their ability to see what was going on around them was limited by the fact that their focus was turned inward, on their own pain and confusion. Many of us know that feeling too – we know that recent bereavement leaves us feeling that our world has narrowed; leaves us with the feeling that whatever is going on out there is little to do with us today, because today all we can manage is to keep breathing and to struggle our way through the essential tasks, put one foot in front of the other in the hope that we will be able to just keep going.  But we also know that however overwhelming those feelings are, they will pass. We know that bereavement is a process and a journey that has to be travelled.

And then their eyes were opened and they saw. Their eyes were opened, the energy shifted and their focus switched from that place of confusion and darkness to somewhere that had light and hope and gave them a focussed direction of travel.

There have been two reasons this week for my gaze to have shifted. The first happened in this building. The playwright, Jo Clifford, wrote and acted 5 chapters of material that were offered under the heading ‘a space to bless’. She took us over the course of the week on a journey through the story of this Cathedral and into a theology of inclusion that didn’t shy away from addressing questions such as oppression and discrimination, personal greed and political power.
Jo explored the journey from darkness into light – the darkness of the 19th century world that surrounded this land when this extraordinary and life giving building was constructed.

Jo helped me to see parts of this building in a new way. Helped me to see her struggles and challenges in a new way. Helped me to see my own struggles and challenges in a new way.
And that means that her material was good theology. It challenged and disturbed; it said something profound that, as soon as I heard it, I knew to be true. It made me laugh and cry; and it left me with something to ponder. If you missed the livestream, the link is in the weekly notices and also on our FaceBook page and I thoroughly recommend watching them.

The second reason for my gaze to shift this week came in the form of a conference, links to which you’ll also find in the notices and on our FaceBook page.

The provincial liturgy committee gave its support to an online conference, Responding to the Sacred, that opened up some of the conversations about language and liturgy, conversations about gender and inclusion about the nature of humanity and the nature of God.

The conference organisers started out with an idea that they wanted to explore questions to do with gendered language. It quickly became apparent that to have a focus on male/ female language was too narrow. It became clear, even in the planning stages, that as soon as we talk about inclusion, as soon as we begin to talk about pushing the boundaries of what we might understand of the nature of God, we’re talking about something that is very much more than a male/female binary. What happens is that we are taken into that territory that Jo Clifford explored during the course of the week; territory that allows us to name some of the injustice, to look at internalised prejudice, to begin to name the sources of darkness.

And naming the sources of our darkness is a necessary step on the journey towards recognising the sources of light. Those disciples on the Emmaus Road were locked into their place of deep darkness. They were experiencing the despair and despondency that was inevitable after what they had witnessed and lived through. They were on that journey through grief that helped to shape them and enabled them to grow into the people they eventually became.
Darkness and light isn’t a binary any more than male female, gay straight or whatever. There is a continuum from absolute darkness to overwhelming light. Going directly from one to the other can be disorientating or even painful. There’s a need for a time of transition. A process of movement from one place to another.

The journey that those disciples took allowed them to go on a transitional journey. They were in one place and it took them a little time to recognise that there was a different place to inhabit, a different way to perceive.

As our church begins to think more deeply about how we share our faith and our experiences of God; how we convey, in words and music and imagery and texture and light, that we want to be more overtly inclusive, that we want to welcome people as they are and regardless of who they are, that we want to participate in the discourse about climate change and stewardship of land, that we want to be relevant, then we need to journey.
All of the evidence would suggest that we’re not there yet. We have intentions and aspirations, but we don’t always know how to communicate all of that very well. We can be rather good within the church at imagining people know what we mean, when we haven’t found a way to tell that they can hear.

One of the gifts of liturgy and of the creative arts is that they resonate for us in more ways than what we hear. They use all of our senses – open up the space within which we might encounter God. That opening up of space allows us to be a little bit like those disciples, to go on a transitional journey towards a place where we perceive differently.

I want to end with the words of blessing that Jo Clifford used each day:

Bless us in our confusion and distress.
Bless us as we try to make sense of things.
Bless everyone trying to shine their light.
Everyone trying to make this world a better place….
Bless us when we’re happy
Bless us when we’re sad
Bless us when we’re frozen in terror
Remind us we are not alone
We never were
We never are
We never shall be
For he is she
And she is he
And we are they
And they are we
And shall be for ever and ever
Amen.

 

 

Easter 2 – Sermon preached online by the Chaplain, Andy Philip – 11th April 2021

Intimate Breath, Intimate Wounds

Last Sunday, we were in a garden, with the sunlight beginning to break through the branches and the breeze rustling the leaves as the risen Christ spoke Mary Magdalene’s name.

This Sunday, we are in a locked room, perhaps with a streak of evening sunlight cutting through shutters and lamplight licking at the walls as the risen Lord appears among the fearful apostles all of a sudden and speaks peace to them.

Two quite different scenes and stories. But both are imbued with a profound sense of humanity, with a deep mystery and a glorious intimacy. That last ingredient — the intimacy of the way the risen Jesus relates to his disciples — leapt off the page for me this week. In this era in which we’ve got used to the necessity of social distancing and wearing masks, the sheer physical intimacy of Jesus’ interactions with the apostles, which might have seemed commonplace before, becomes startling and unsettling as well as a comfort bulging with hope.

What unsettled me first of all was the fact that, after Jesus greets the disciples, proves his identity through his wounds and commissions them, he breathes on them and says, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ (verse 22).

He breathes on them. The past 13 months have made us all much more aware of what we breathe out and what we breathe in. Our lives and the lives of those we love may well depend on our being careful about what we breathe out and what we breathe in. At times, this has turned some of the most mundane places in our lives — the supermarket, for instance — into places of fear. In that experience, there is something of a small analogy with the disciples’ situation: we share with them a reticence to move around out of concern for our safety.

While the Jewish authorities are breathing out threats, Jesus breathes on the disciples bringing to them the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of peace and boldness. This feels at once unsettling and comforting. It unsettles me because I can’t help think about the virus. And I can’t help think about how it would be wonderful to be close enough to the friends and family I’ve seen only via Zoom for them to breathe on me like that.

But it should unsettle us too because Jesus’ breathing imbues the disciples with the unruly, unshackled, unshackling power of the Holy Spirit. This is the Spirit who hovered over the waters of creation. The Spirit who blows where she will. The Spirit who overturns the order of the world, setting free the captives, exalting the lowly and reversing death itself.

However, this gift of the Spirit is comfort too. Jesus’ breathing on the disciples in this way links the Spirit directly to him. The Greek word for ‘spirit’ can also ‘wind’ or ‘breath’, just as is the case with the Hebrew word. Perhaps we could just as well render the line: ‘Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Breath.”’

This breath is holy because it is the breath of God. This breath is comfort because it means that God is intimate with the disciples and they are intimate with God. It is God that they breathe in and breathe out.

Christ still breathes on the church. Christ still breathes on us and says, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’

Easter is not just some mystical hope for the future of our souls and bodies; it is the about the real presence of Christ, the real intimacy of God with us here and now and every day. It is about the breath of God filling us with ‘life anew’ each and every day.

How can we be intimate with Christ if we do not recognise him? It seems the disciples, and not just Thomas, had trouble knowing who Jesus was. We read that, when all the disciples bar Thomas were together with the door barred:

Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. (verses 19–20)

Notice the order of things here: Jesus came, Jesus spoke, Jesus showed them his wounds, thenthey rejoiced when they saw the Lord’. It is almost as if they didn’t see him until he showed them his hands and side.

Perhaps, like me, you have focused in the past on Jesus showing his wounds to Thomas. Poor Thomas: he gets a bad rap for wanting no more, really, than the proof that his fellow apostles had already seen. Proof of something really rather incredible. But Thomas’s insistence highlights for us the function that Jesus’ wounds play in this narrative: they are the markers of his identity, the means by which all the disciples recognise him.

We don’t know exactly what Jesus did: ‘showed’ could mean he simply displayed his wounds and pointed them out. That may well be what is implied, although it could be that he invited them, as he does with Thomas, to touch him. Likewise, we don’t know whether Thomas did touch Jesus’ wounds, although I think the text implies he didn’t: he simply and emphatically recognised the risen Christ as ‘My Lord and my God’ (verse 28).

There is little that can be more intimate and vulnerable than showing someone else your wounds. Our wounds shape us, even though they don’t and shouldn’t wholly define us. When I think about Christ’s vulnerability, I’ve been apt to think mostly of the crucifixion. Seldom if ever have I considered the risen Christ as vulnerable. But here we have it: Jesus on the day of his resurrection is being as vulnerable as one can be to another human being.

God incarnate shows us his wounds. It is God’s desire to be that intimate with us. And we remember those wounds every time we break bread in the Eucharist. So when we stretch out our hands and our hearts to receive the sacrament, we reach out in response to Christ’s invitation to be intimate with him, to know his wounds, to recognise him as our Lord and God.

If he, our Lord and God, displays his wounds to us, we ought to be able to show our wounds to each other. The church should be a community in which we can open up about our own brokenness, can be open to one another’s brokenness. Not in ways that continue to wound but in ways that move us towards healing. For it is in that brokenness that we see Christ in each other.

We speak in our liturgy of being united in the sign of the Living Bread being broken. In that moment of fraction — of breaking — our own brokenness meets Christ’s brokenness and all these wounds can become a source of freedom, freedom such as that Thomas found to stand against his own fear, against the power of the authorities and alongside the wounded and gloriously resurrected Christ. May we know that freedom this Eastertide and in every season.

Easter Sunday Evensong – sermon preached by John Conway, Provost – April 4th 2021

Song of Songs 3.2-5 & 8.6-7; John 20.11-18

What’s in a name?

I suspect most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about our own name. Our parents may, or may not, have agonised over the choice, but for most of us it’s a given that we live with, fairly unthinkingly. If people do change their name, it is usually the indicator of a profound transition that they are going through, a marker of significant change in life generally. But for most of us, we simply live with the name we were given. If I stop to contemplate my own name, I suppose I think John is a little boring – I used to wonder why my parents chose such a, at the time, common name – it’s now out of the top 100 favourite names, so perhaps there’s hope for me yet! And yet, I am still put out if someone gets my name wrong; and I know that for others John fits me – that’s who I am. We carry our names by and large unthinkingly, and yet they have an ability to get to our core. They do, literally, name us; and to get someone’s name wrong, feels like handing out an insult.

In our gospel this afternoon, it is as Mary hears her name, that the reality of resurrection breaks in.

Mary has gone in her grief to the tomb of Jesus, to find it disturbed, ransacked perhaps. She has fetched Peter and the beloved disciple, but is eventually left by them standing alone in the garden, weeping. And it is there that she has mysterious encounters; first with angels and then with a man she supposes to be the gardener. And each time she is asked, ‘Why are you weeping?’

Mary’s world has of course fallen apart, violence has been loosed on the man she followed and loved, and he is dead. 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 beloved, anoint and care for it, offer the rituals of comfort to ease her grief and pain.

Perhaps that is why we too are here, doing something familiar, responding to fearful times with comforting rituals, with expressions of tenderness towards those we know. It’s a way of coping with the grief we feel as we lament the state of the world.

But that is not what resurrection is. Mary meets an absence – the body 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 this absence – one at the head, the other at the feet. Woman why are you weeping? they ask. She is weeping because the one thing she thought she could do in her grief is not possible – he is not there, his body is gone.

And then 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. The familiar, the expected, has been taken from us – and all is strange.

And then this stranger names her, “Mary”, and everything changes. I find that moment unbearably poignant. It is as she is given her name, that her eyes are opened. The ability of that name to get to the core of her being calls forth a response, a recognition, a moment of overwhelming, surprising, joy and grace. 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. She recognises him as alive, and is lifted into resurrection. In place of her fear and grief, here is the presence of him whom Mary had thought gone.

In the story of creation, God brings into being things by naming them: God said: ‘Be light’, and there was light. God subsequently asks Adam to name all the animals as they are brought into being. It is a primordial power – to name. And without doubt, the same happens for Mary: this naming re-creates her. No longer a woman of grief, but of resurrection, with good news to proclaim. ‘Mary’ – it is both her old self, and yet uttered by the risen Christ, her new self. Nothing has changed – Mary still names the same flesh and bone, and yet all is changed. Such is the power of naming.

In his Easter Sermon in 1620, the Anglican theologian Lancelot Andrewes said:

You thought you should have come to Christ’s resurrection today, and so you do. But not to his alone, but even to Mary Magdalene’s resurrection too. For in very deed a kind of resurrection it was, was wrought in her; revived as it were, and raised from the dead and drooping, to lively cheerful estate. The gardener had done his part, made her all green on the sudden.

The gardener had done his part, made her all green on the sudden. And Mary we are told, rushed off to proclaim this good news. Lancelot Andrewes is surely right – we have come to Christ’s resurrection today, and yet it is Mary’s resurrection we celebrate also. And yours, and mine. The gardener does his part, makes us all green on the sudden.

The resurrection, the gift of life beyond death, is what lifts Mary and us out of the familiar, beyond the violence and griefs and betrayals of our world, into new life. “Do not cling to me”, says the Risen Jesus. And so the resurrection gives new purpose, new energy – as Mary runs to proclaim to the disciples – I have seen the Lord.

Mary, and we, are summoned by the Risen Christ into naming the world afresh, into that task of re-creation. Such naming needs to be truthful – it must get to the heart, restoring an identity that is recognisable. The pandemic of the last year has left us battered and bruised and weary. And yet new life comes, and its accent is hopeful, the hope that has the power to change things. Leave your weeping, and go into the world to name it anew; give it the gift of its self, named in hope not despair; for the gardener has done his part, and we proclaim resurrection. Amen.

 

Lent 5 – Sermon preached online by the Chaplain, Andy Philip – 21st March 2021

Passion Sunday 2021

If you had to draw a shape to represent your life, what would it be? I’m not sure I could easily answer my own question and I doubt whether any of us, with the way the past year has been, would sketch something smooth and seamless, like a circle. In this week’s Gospel, though, Jesus gives us some strong indications of what shape our lives as his followers should take.

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).

This extremely brief parable — just a single, stark image — is a crucial verse in the reading. It sits at the start of three verses of sayings that point unavoidably to the cruciform shape of the Christian life. It follows a declaration by Jesus that his crucifixion is approaching. ‘The hour has come,’ he says, ‘for the Son of Man to be glorified’ (verse 23), using the turn of phrase that he regularly deploys in John’s Gospel to speak of the Cross. It also precedes a saying that is clearly not about Jesus but directed at people who reject or follow him: ‘Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life’ (verse 25).

The parable of the grain not only stands between these two statements but connects them: it clearly refers to Jesus’ death and its effect — an effect he spells out at the end of the reading when he speaks of ‘the judgement of this world’ (verse 31) and says that when he is ‘lifted up from the earth, [he] will draw all people to [him]self’ (verse 32). But it also relates to the life that his followers are called to lead: a cross-shaped life, a life of self-giving.

In case we miss the point, Jesus puts it to us again in different words: ‘Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also’ (verse 26a). Jesus is at this point heading towards the Cross. This, then, is where his servants should be, is the direction in which his servants should be heading. It is, in essence, the Gospel of John’s equivalent of Jesus saying in Matthew, Mark and Luke that anyone who wants to follow him should carry their cross (Matthew 10:38, 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23, 14:27).

These three verses close with a promise: ‘Whoever serves me, the Father will honour’ (verse 26b). The promise parallels Jesus’ declaration of his crucifixion, the hour of his glorification. When we follow the cruciform life to which Jesus calls us, God will honour us, just as God has glorified Jesus. It’s not clear from the passage what this honour consists of, but this parallelism clearly links it to Christ and his suffering.

We are used to hearing Jesus in John’s Gospel speak of the Cross as his hour of glorification but we should take a step back and consider how strange it is to describe the crucifixion in these terms. This form of execution was an utter humiliation. More than that, it aimed at expunging the crucified person and their memory from the community. In effect, it expunged them from existence. Loud and clear, it gave the message that Rome could do what it liked with you, that the power and violence of the Empire held sway. That you were nothing. It was, if anything, an hour of shame.

This system of power, domination, violence and shame is what the Gospel means when it speaks of ‘the world’. It is a system that leads to alienation from one another and, above all, alienation from God. This is the world that Jesus says in verse 31 will be judged by his going to the Cross and it is life in this world, in this system, that he asks his followers to hate.

The Cross disarms this system and drives out ‘the ruler of this world’ (verse 31), breaks the authority of the system, by exposing just how false the shame and alienation, the violence, power and domination are. The hour of shame becomes the hour of glory. The hour of violence becomes the hour of peace. The hour of death becomes the hour of life.

A glance at the news over the past week or so might well lead us to question how real this disarming is. The murder of Sarah Everard and the shootings in Atlanta show how violence and domination are still rampant in our world. Clamp-downs by Governments throughout the world and even closer to home on peaceful protest can easily be read as another outgrowth of the impulse to dominate rather than serve. And the Vatican’s statement on same-sex relationships lays bare how shame, power and domination are still strong in the church.

I don’t think Jesus is under any illusions about any of this. This is why the Gospel writer has him tell us that ‘those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life’ (verse 25). He knows that the system still tries to ride roughshod over the image of God in each and every one of us. It still pulls at us to act in ways that alienate us from one another and from the God who created and loves us. It still drives us to act in ways that oppress others, that do violence to them, to the planet or to our fellow creatures.

Jesus calls us and frees us to ‘hate [our] life in this world’. That call is a cry to take up the Cross of resistance to this system of power and oppression.

And such resistance works, as the non-violent civil rights campaign in the US and anti-apartheid campaign demonstrate. I mention those not simply because they are famous examples but because of the role theology played in them through the leadership of Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu.

We are not living in pre-civil rights America or apartheid-era South Africa. But we are still called to resist the pull towards violence, shame, domination and alienation in the world around us. How, then, shall we live? How should we, as faithful individual followers of Christ, as a community of faith, as a church — a church still run predominantly by men — respond to the reality of the violence and harassment that women and girls face day in day out? How should we respond to attempts to clamp down on the freedom to protest? How do we ensure that, instead of perpetuating shame and gatekeeping God’s blessing, we extend Gospel hospitality to all — and especially the marginalised — just as Jesus did?

These are uncomfortable questions. They are questions we need to reflect on as individuals and a community, continually allowing them, and other questions like them, to challenge us. One thing they demand of us, however, is that we listen, that we allow ourselves to be made aware of what privilege we wield and that we surrender it as far as we are able. That we become aware of how our attitudes and actions pull us towards violence and domination and that we resist that pull. Such actions will bring us into conflict with the world — perhaps even within the church — but when we take such steps, and when we do so Jesus’ name, we lift him up and he draws people to himself. When we live this Cross-shaped life, those who come saying, ‘we wish to see Jesus’ (verse 21) will find him walking among us.

Lent 4 – Sermon preached online by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 14th March 2021

Numbers 21.4-9; Ephesians 2.1-10; John 3.14-21

This coming week sees the anniversary of the first Coronavirus lockdown – that moment when the full seriousness and far-reaching effect of the pandemic burst upon our consciousness, and we were plunged into a new unpredictability. No doubt there will be much written to help us reflect and assess where this year has left us, individually and collectively. It’s been a year where much has been stripped away: a process that has often exposed previous vulnerabilities and fault lines. That stripping away has left many anxious and facing huge challenges. For others, aspects of that stripping away have been strangely welcome: revealing in fresh ways what is essential and necessary to life. We have discovered the value of public service and the caring professions; the previously overlooked have found themselves, at times, clapped as heroes. And none of us has been left un-marked, un-touched by the isolation from others, and the fragmentation of our previous life.

Many years ago, as I tried to prepare myself to become a parent, I read a book by Melissa Benn about motherhood. She reflected on the strange paradoxes involved in leaving behind the world of work and being plunged into the new topsy-turvy world of looking after a child; how that was incredibly hard, not least in undermining self-confidence and a previous sense of identity given by work or achievements. As a society – certainly politicians, and in the church – we talk a lot about family and its importance; but that talk often doesn’t recognise the experience, in this new role, of suddenly becoming invisible, undervalued and unappreciated, whilst drowning under the weight of the repetitive, mind-draining cycle of caring. That loss of a previous identity is true of motherhood (and can be, though less often I think, of fatherhood) but is also true of those who suddenly have to drop everything and care for other relatives. Melissa Benn beautifully captured that move into a much less clear world, where our sense of self feels much less secure. She writes: “All that we held solidly dear from the old life melts into air; the ever-renewable sentence that begins with ‘I want’, ‘I plan’, ‘I intend’ now becomes hopelessly entangled with, lost within, the compass of this creature whose tiny hand opens and closes with all the slow definite beauty of a flower.”

I was reminded of that quote as I reflected on this past year, when all that we held solidly dear has melted into air; when the ever-renewable sentence that begins with ‘I want’ or ‘I plan’, or ‘I intend’ is no longer straightforward. Now of course, in the case of motherhood, the slow definite beauty of the tiny hand that Melissa Benn also talks about, provides some compensations: motherhood is not just about the loss of identity previously provided by work and the relationships and networks and sense of self found there. But that gift of the slow definite beauty of a child, needs nurturing, needs a community in which it can gain wider recognition and flower. The isolation of motherhood is often acute – the sense that others don’t understand that strange mixture of loss and gain. And the same is true for many of us in the journey we have taken in this past year – into an isolation where it is difficult to articulate the strange mixture of loss and gain we feel.

Losing one’s identity and finding it rebuilt, lies at the heart of the Christian journey. In today’s reading from John we were given the image of Moses setting up the serpent in the wilderness for the healing of the people bitten by snakes – they are healed by staring at that which threatens them. John suggests that Christ becomes the serpent upon whom we gaze for our healing. For John Christ is lifted up on the cross in glorification. It is from there – that place of crucifixion – that, paradoxically, the light shines. The cross is our salvation, the moment of revelation. In John’s Gospel the resurrection narratives aren’t the moment when all is revealed as being sorted; the focus of the resurrection narratives isn’t actually on Christ per se, on the surprising coming to life of the one who had been killed. The focus is on the giving of a new identity to the disciples who had been scattered and brought low by the events of the crucifixion. And so Mary is re-named in the garden; the frightened disciples cowering behind locked doors are given the gift of peace; Thomas is lifted out of doubt into faith; Peter by the seashore finds himself forgiven and given a new identity and calling. The disciples are undone by the cross, and remade in the grace of the resurrection.

The paradox at the heart of John’s gospel, at the heart of Christianity, is that when God comes, God does not come in displays of majesty and glory, but supremely in the ignominy, the isolation, the degradation of the cross. And in making that journey to the cross, like the first disciples we are judged: ‘This is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil,’ says our Gospel. In our desire for security, for power, or even for a quiet life, this is what we do to love: we crucify it. And yet, ‘God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ For John, salvation is about accepting that judgement, finding our sense of self undone so that it might be rebuilt on God’s grace, God’s desire to save. To journey to the cross means beginning no longer to rely on the habitual props our ego demands – the props of prestige or achievement, of being someone; but living from grace – from the sense that all life is gift, that the most basic reality that there is, is that God so loves the world, that God loves us and names each one of us. That is our security and our wellspring, what frees us from the drive simply for financial reward, or the adulation of others: that all of life, in all its tragedy and glory, can be received and lived as God-given, can be the place of grace, the meeting place of our God of love. And the church is a community of the re-named, those who celebrate their new identity, given to us in grace – celebrate each other, not because of what we do, or where we live, but because of our God-given life, the breath of God within each, and what each is then capable of.

So if you are, like me, celebrating mothers today, either your own experience of mothering, or that of the mother who bore you, I hope that isn’t just a simple eulogising of motherhood that leaves the difficult reality of it untouched. Motherhood often does mean a letting go, or more accurately a discovery that we are undone, our sense of self undermined. Motherhood, in Melissa Benn’s phrase, is about becoming hopelessly entangled with another, with others. That becoming hopelessly entangled undermines our sense of self, it is about our interdependency with others, rather than a cherished sense of independence. That is one of the most difficult aspects of the past year: that the language of freedom in responding to the pandemic has often been about reasserting our independence, our right to do whatever we like. And not only has that proved inadequate to the challenge of the pandemic, it misunderstands what it is to be human. In our most profound experiences we discover we are hopelessly entangled with one another. The church exists as the community who are learning to receive that entanglement as grace – as the meeting place with God, the place where we are re-named and given a new identity. We belong together, called to share the burdens and the joys of that entanglement. For that building of community, not a community of the like-minded, not a community of the successful and achieving, but a community of the faithful, even in the fragmentation of this past year, thanks be to God. Amen.

Lent 3. Sermon preached online by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley.

 

Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1: 18-25; John 2: 13-22

Last week, the Provost explored the question of who is this Jesus who calls us to take up our Cross and follow him. Who is this character whom Peter identifies as the Messiah? Today, I want to explore a complementary question: who is the man Jesus? What can we learn about the flesh and blood person who walked the streets of Jerusalem in the first century?

Our lectionary takes us to John’s Gospel, to Jesus travelling up to Jerusalem for the Passover. This story comes at a different place in John’s Gospel from the other three where it is much later in the story. But note that the reason for the journey is to celebrate the Passover – a festival that will be celebrated again during Holy Week, with a different context and outcome.

So the first point to note about the man we’re concerned with is that he is an observant Jew. He’s travelling to Jerusalem to observe the festival – and we know that at Passover, one of the most important festivals in the Jewish calendar, the population of Jerusalem exploded.
It was the place to be if that was at all possible. I guess it was a bit like Edinburgh at the height of the Festival – streets so busy that it’s difficult to get anywhere; umpteen languages being spoken; every possible place to stay filled, if not over filled. So Jesus was part of that throng. But he wasn’t just along for the social contact. He may have been going somewhere particular for the Seder meal, but that wasn’t his first destination. He got to Jerusalem and headed for the temple. The first thing we learn is that this man is serious about the practice of his religion. There are requirements for those making Passover preparations, and he’s on his way to carry them out.

Jesus arrives at the Temple and is shocked and angry by the scene that he encounters. Things aren’t as they should be – the merchants and money changers have gradually taken over the space in a way that suits them, rather than the environment they’re in – and they’ve made it into a market place for their own ends. It’s a scene of exploitation and greed that Jesus is very quick to challenge.

So the next thing we learn about Jesus is that he is on the side of justice. He sees that there is a very particular set up here, that the most devout people in the community are being financially abused by people out to make a quick buck. I always imagine that the Temple marketplace has become a magnet for vendors – that they travel from all sorts of places to sell their wares, or to act as money changers; that it’s a haven for people who want to make money and don’t have too many scruples about how they do that. We don’t know who these traders are or how far they have travelled. We know nothing about their religious affiliation. What we do know is that they have seen an opportunity to line their own pockets and that Jesus has called them out on it.

And how he called them out. This wasn’t a time for gentle negotiation or the art of persuasion. This was a full on challenge made with authority. How dare you? No ifs, no buts, just stop right now.

So who is this Jesus? He’s someone who takes his religion seriously and, as a result, is willing to speak out for the sake of justice.
A religiously observant man. Note that we’re not talking here about piety – in fact Jesus routinely challenges false piety. We’re talking about religious observance, about engaging with the major festivals, recognising those markers within the year. Doing what is required in order to be in a right relationship with God. This is the embodied Jesus, living as we live, faced with decisions and challenges as we are, setting priorities and living by example.

And his starting place is his life of prayer. This is the man whose way of being in the world is our model for how we might live our lives. And if we are to take seriously the Lenten injunction to ‘take up your cross and follow’, this is the fully human Jesus whom we’re called to follow.

I was reading a Twitter thread the other day that began by noting that people outwith the churches are inclined to describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. And the question was, what does it mean to be religious but not spiritual. In other words, what does it mean to be observant of religious practices without actively engaging in a relationship with God? It’s perfectly possible to keep the outward manifestations of religious life without any of the accompanying internal movement towards living differently. And I wonder how much of the tension within our churches emerges from just such behaviours. It’s easy to focus on ‘doing it right’ and to shy away from ‘living it right’.

We can see that for Jesus, being religiously observant was about much more than keeping the rules. His religious observance and spiritual engagement led directly to his challenge to the traders and money changers; his anger came from an understanding of the injustice of their practices. His actions were integrated – evidencing that he was showing how to be both religious and spiritual; that it is both possible and highly desirable to embrace both.

What then does that mean for those of us who want to respond to the command to take up your cross and follow? Can we find ways to ensure that we are both religious and spiritual, and in so doing find ways to integrate the two so that our actions are informed by our prayer, and our prayer is informed by our action.
One starting place might be to allow ourselves to get angry. We’re bombarded with imagery of injustice in all sorts of places within our world. We know that there are serious inequalities; that some people are exploited and others reap the rewards. These are matters that we regularly bring to God in prayer. And that is half of the equation. The other side is to work out how and where we might channel that anger. How and where we might put our energies in order to begin to have an impact.

None of us can take on every injustice or worthy cause within our world. But each of us will recognise that there are some issues that, for us, are more important or more distressing or more urgent. There isn’t necessarily a hierarchy of things that it would be good to concern oneself with. There is however, a Gospel imperative to concern ourselves with something.
There’s a reminder of that in the reading from the letter to the Corinthians: we proclaim Christ crucified. In so proclaiming, we are making an implicit commitment to respond to that crucifixion, to count ourselves amongst those who have been changed by the incarnate Jesus and the crucified Christ.
There are plenty of opportunities in our lives to challenge what we see and know to be wrong, to be abusive, to be exploitative. It takes courage and it takes energy – and it may not make us popular. But it is one way to evidence that we have indeed sought and picked up a cross.

 

 

 

 

Lent 2 – sermon preached online by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 28th February

Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16; Romans 4.13-25; Mark 8.31-38

It’s become routinely observed recently that what we need this Lent is a little different to previous years; that, in a context where hardships and deprivations are already upon us, we don’t need Lenten disciplines to pile on any more. That may be the case, but if so, we still come up against the hard rock of today’s gospel, with Jesus telling his disciples:  ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ What sense do we make of that injunction to deny ourselves, to take up our cross, in these times of pandemic, and anxiety?

The exchange recorded in Mark’s Gospel follows on from Jesus asking the disciples,  Who do you say that I am? That is the question that has rung out through two thousand years of Christian discipleship. And still today, particularly today, we all, individually and collectively, need to find, and live out, an answer to the question that Christ poses afresh again every time we hear this crucial gospel passage – ‘Who do you say that I am?’ It is a question that brings into focus what we hold dear, what we think life is for, what we should do, and what Christ and God have to do with that: Who do you say that I am?

If we think that is an easy question to answer, then our gospel reading should make us pause. Peter, after all, in his instinctive, initial response has got it right – has named Jesus as Messiah. In the passage we heard, however, Peter is now disputing with Jesus what that exactly means, Peter rebukes Jesus for the hard road he seems committed to. The vehemence of Jesus’ reply – ‘Get behind me Satan!’ – illustrates that Peter has touched a raw nerve, given voice to a real temptation that Jesus pushes aside. We heard last week Mark’s brief account of Jesus’ time in the desert; there is no full account in Mark of the temptations, and perhaps that’s because the temptations aren’t all confined to the desert but meet Jesus on the road, in his disciples’ expectations and desires. Peter’s initial answer to the question Jesus poses, has rejoiced in Jesus as the Messiah, as the one who will save them, make everything right, bring in the kingdom Jesus proclaims and lives out. Who do you say that I am? You’re the one who’s going to make everything alright. But to this naming, this expectation, Jesus’ response is blunt and to the point: he orders the disciples to keep silent and instead outlines the suffering and rejection that await him. Here is the scandal at the heart of Christianity and surely we find Jesus’ words as bewildering and perplexing as the first disciples. A bright horizon is suddenly darkened. We are confronted with the most disturbing fact of the gospels: that Jesus knows and accepts, even desires, the way that leads to the cross. From this moment on, Jesus’ face is set toward Jerusalem and toward the death that awaits him. Others may take his life, but he gives it.

And so, our answer to the question of who we say Christ is, has to make sense of that way of the cross, and of the fact that he calls us to do likewise: ‘”If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’

Perhaps the story of Abraham and Sarah, our forbears in faith, that we heard a little of in our Old Testament reading, can shed some light.  Last week we heard of God’s covenant proclaimed to Noah, a covenant with all people, and all living things, the whole created earth. Now that covenant finds its focus in this elderly couple – Abram has been promised that his offspring will be blessed, and bring blessing to the whole world, and yet that promise seems under threat; Abram’s family line is dribbling out, the promise that has sustained his wanderings appears to be at an end. Abram does have Ishmael, the son born of a surrogate mother, and old, almost cynical Abram is preparing to let this Ishmael be his rightful and only heir, because there is no other on the horizon, or even possible: he is old, Sarai his wife is old. But God has more faith, more confidence, more resilience in the possible future – our OT reading is about the renewal of God’s promise. And inexplicably, the yearned for baby arrives – defying reason, common sense, explanation. The covenant is renewed in the miracle of new life, God’s creative action, in the the birth of Isaac. And at this moment of renewal, Abraham and Sarah are renamed and thrown into responses of wonder, astonishment, gratitude, praise, and even laughter. It is that response which defines Abraham and Sarah, and their family after them called to bless the earth – the covenant is renewed and faithfulness is understood as faith in God’s creative action, faith in God’s ability to do a surprising thing. And we can only respond in wonder, astonishment, gratitude, praise, and even laughter. That is the gift of faith bequeathed by Abraham to his descendants, including us – the gift of faith in God whose promise bursts anew in surprising ways, disrupting our jaded cynicism, world weariness, our anxiety about the future.

And in Jesus, we see the ultimate human response to the promise and power of that covenant – an obedience to the call of God when it seems to the outside world, and even to his disciples, to make no sense. In Jesus we see a complete and utter trust, faith, that that covenantal relationship will see him through suffering and even death. Reason and sense protests – we desire something more straightforward, a God who will simply remove our suffering – a providential doctor in the sky who can alleviate our pain, make everything better. The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jesus is no sugar-daddy however: not a God who removes our pain and suffering, but one who shoulders it alongside us, heals and redeems it by acts of costly, creative love, and so transforms the world. God’s power is revealed not as the power to zap things right, coercing the world into happiness, but the vulnerable and yet unstoppable power of being, of continually bringing into existence, of life in the place of death, of resurrection life in the place of suffering and death.

So who is Jesus for us, in this time of pandemic, of weariness and anxiety? The answer to that question needs, as ever, to reckon with the cross, to walk the way of the cross, but we do so by trusting with our whole being in God’s promised covenantal relationship. A covenant renewed in Christ, a covenant with God whose surprising grace is inexhaustible. That renewed faith will make us, like Abraham and Sarah, start in wonder, astonishment, gratitude, praise, and even laughter – realities that subvert our cynical or world weary responses, responses that so often masquerade as common sense or ‘just the way the world is.’ Faith is felt more deeply when our world is under stress, but the truth is also revealed that faith in God begins to make sense of the senselessness of suffering. The root of the word ‘suffer’ means to bear, to carry. This pandemic reveals more sharply than ever that life is characterised by suffering in that sense, by the bearing and carrying of people and situations, of one another. To walk the way of the cross in faith is refuse the illusion that we can throw off that suffering, that bearing – that somehow the bearing of others is not at the heart of our human existence. To walk the way of the cross in faith is to face that suffering, that bearing of the world; trusting that through the power of God’s covenantal love, that ‘suffering’, that bearing of one another, becomes the place of surprising resurrection. Amen.