Amazing love!

Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me!


At Mass in St. Bene’t’s, Cambridge this morning, we sung Charles Wesley’s extraordinary hymn, And can it be. The words of this hymn are emotive and beautiful, expressing the extravagant and reckless love of God whose mercy is inexpressible and love for us is beyond reason or knowledge. It reminded me of one of the greatest sermons I have ever witnessed – preached by Archbishop Barry of Wales when he visited Corpus. He told us this story from Flannery O’Connor’s story, ‘The River’.

FlanneryOConnorCompleteStoriesThe story is about a little boy called Bevel whose parents are too busy to have any time for him, she he’s hunted off to the care of a kind country woman. One day, when she’s out with Bevel by the river, they come across a preacher baptising people in its waters. Then, without warning, the preacher picks Bevel up, swings him under the water and baptises him. Then, after he is baptised, the preacher lifts him up in the air and, looking him straight in the eye says to him, ‘You count. You count’.

Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me!

Now, of course, I wouldn’t advocate that anyone should be baptised in quite that way but the preacher’s actions and words reveal something of that amazing and generous love, which appears so reckless in contrast to our human attempts to limit God’s love and welcome. I believe the Church of God exists above all else to proclaim to all who will hear – ‘you count, you count.’ We have to be a people who believe and proclaim that God takes great delight in all people because we are made in his image and bear the mark of his very nature whoever we are. However, we are only able to proclaim this if we realise that we ourselves are loved by God. You can only proclaim a message of love if you have first hand knowledge of what it means to be loved.

Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me!

Every single person in the Church has been called by name and been incorporated into the Body of Christ. You are accepted in love and we are asked to respond with love. We matter to God, and because of that are able, in turn, to tell others that they matter to us and to God. This is a very simple and profound message but it is amazing how many people find it hard to believe that God actually loves them without reserve. Many people think of God as angry or vengeful – just look at the kind of God proclaimed by ISIS – while others thing of a God whose love has to be earned. Often this is because they think of themselves as unlovable or worst still, the Church has conveyed to them the impression that they are unlovable and that God has found them wanting. There’s no need to list the people to whom this applies.

In the Gospel reading today, we hear of Christ’s generous love to a woman considered so far outside the religious establishment of its day. This message of shameless, generous love was not accepted by the establishment of the day – they drove this Love to death on the Cross. This was a love which endured death rather than conform to social expectation. We the followers of Jesus are meant to be living symbols – walking sacraments of the truth of the Gospel that our God is a God of love. Jesus’ disciples are people to whom God has given a resounding yes in love – however extraordinary and impossible that might seem – and so, as people accepted by God in this way, we need to reflect that love, which means saying yes to God’s world and to everyone within it, especially those whom the rest of the world finds so unlovable: the stranger, the refugee, the difficult and the poor.

This will demand sacrifice, we can’t say how much and it will require us to constantly set aside our tidy boundaries and ideas of respectability and to reach out into the depths of the world – knowing that God says to every person ‘you count. You count.’ This is a simple message, perhaps it doesn’t even need a blog post to get it across – but there is much here to meditate on. Two hymns can provide helpful food for thought: And can it be and the beautiful There’s a wideness in God’s mercy – words I will be spending time with for the rest of the day (texts below)

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There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in his justice,
which is more than liberty.

There is welcome for the sinner,
and more graces for the good;
there is mercy with the Saviour;
there is healing in his blood.

There is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more felt than in heaven;
there is no place where earth’s failings
have such kind judgment given.

There is plentiful redemption
in the blood that has been shed;
there is joy for all the members
in the sorrows of the Head.

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of man’s mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.

If our love were but more faithful,
we should take him at his word;
and our life would be thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.


And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain—
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

’Tis mystery all: th’Immortal dies:
Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore;
Let angel minds inquire no more.

He left His Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite His grace—
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

Still the small inward voice I hear,
That whispers all my sins forgiven;
Still the atoning blood is near,
That quenched the wrath of hostile Heaven.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

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‘Like Living Stones’ | The Priesthood of all Believers

‘Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’ – 1 Peter 2.4f.

The New Testament and the classical tradition of theology has emphasised that every baptised person is a priest. Of course, the ordained or ministerial priesthood has its own particular charism as ‘a walking sacrament’, to quote Farrer, but all believers share together in the holy priesthood of Christ. This is a big claim. Priests are those who mediate between God and human beings – as 1 Peter says, they offer spiritual sacrifices of praise and thus draw humanity up to the Creator. Priests are a pontifex – a bridge between the Trinity and the human heart. Every Christian person is, in this sense, a priest – a builder of bridges.

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‘The Priesthood of All Believers’ by Janet Pfeiffer

The background of our understanding of priesthood comes from the Old Testament. The Old Covenant is full of priests! Moses, Abraham and Noah all offered sacrifice to God and acted as priests but perhaps Aaron is the greatest. Aaron is the founding father of the long line of temple priests, who sustained the worship of Israel until the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. The Jerusalem priests became very interesting figures: they wear special vestments, preside over the complex liturgies of the temple and offer prayer and sacrifice on behalf of the people. In short, these priests were essential to the religious life and imagination of ancient Israel.

Some commentators have attempted to say that Jesus does away with all this priesthood and cult, that he entirely sweeps away this central pillar of the life of the old covenant. I think there’s some real problems with this interpretation. Of course, Jesus was not a temple priest – he was a Rabbi, a teacher of the faith. However, he was clearly temple-centric: the gospels tells us that Jesus often went up to Jerusalem to participate in the sacrificial cult and he often preached in the temple precinct. Then, of course, there is the climax of his public life – the event which probably led to his arrest – when he enters the temple and shocks the foundations of the religious establishment. He enters the temple, turns over the temples of the money changers and pronounces divine judgement: ‘I will destroy this temple and in three days raise it up’. This is a serious judgement, but it comes from his deep love for the temple. Many prophets of Israel, especially Isaiah and Ezekiel, have pronounced judgement on the corruption of the temple – Ezekiel famously saying that the very spirit of God had abandoned the temple in Jerusalem. However, they do this because they love the priesthood and the sacrifices. Jesus too loved the temple – he wanted to cleanse, reform and rebuild it!

When he pronounces judgement, he claims that ‘in three days’ he will raise up the temple but, as the evangelist tells us, ‘he was speaking of the temple of his body.’ Jesus doesn’t hate the temple, but he reorientates it – it would be in his body that God would be properly worshipped. The creeds affirm that in Jesus humanity and divinity come together – he is, in the very structure of his being, a priest and a temple. This is how he interprets his own death – the ultimate temple sacrifice, the great high priestly act. When we hear the words of the Last Supper: ‘take, eat; this is my body which is given for you’ – this is the language of sacrifice – this is the work of a priest! In this, Jesus makes his own body a sacrifice. Then, taking the cup of wine, he says ‘this is the blood of the new covenant’ – again, the language of the temple! Just as the blood of the slaughtered animal was a sign of atonement and reparation for sin; so his blood will be poured out for the sins of all humanity. Jesus is performing the final sacrifice because he is the final perfect priest. Jesus says that he will be in his own dying the temple.

Then we come to verses I quoted above from 1 Peter. The Apostle tells us that we will become ‘like living stones.. built into a spiritual house’ – the language is strange but this would have been entirely comprehensible to Jews who knew the temple! Jesus is the new temple and we are to be living stones within it. This means, as people who belong to the priesthood of all believers, we must be stones in the temple of the Lord’s body. This is the mission of the believer: to be so configured to Christ that your whole life is an offering of praise; that you become a true priest, a bridge between the divine and human. If your life is centred around your identity as a living stone, then your whole life will become an offering of praise and you will radiate the love of Christ to those around you. That’s what it means to be configured to Christ.

If we don’t live out our Christian faith, if we don’t speak about Christ to others, or allow the love of God to radiate out of ourselves then we will fail our mission. We are priests, without our being configured to Christ, no-one will experience the love of God and the temple will crumble! This is summed up in John 14, Jesus’ discourse at the Last Supper, where he is presented as the perfect priest. Philip says to Jesus, ‘Lord, show us the Father’ and Jesus responds ‘whoever has seen me has seen the Father.’ That is Jesus’ priesthood, he is the icon of the invisible God – the great bridge between humanity and divinity. Similarly in this chapter, the apostles ask Jesus to ‘show us the way’ and he tells them that he is ‘the way and the truth and the life’! Just as the priest offering sacrifice was offering a path to connect Israel to God, so Jesus is saying, I am myself the High Priest, the perfect sacrifice and the temple! If you want to know God, says Jesus, you need to me.

Wonderfully, this is true, by analogy, of all the baptised. You and I must be the way, the bridge and the means of access to God! By God’s grace, we are to so radiate the divine life that we reconcile humanity and God and draw people to share with us in the temple of the living God.

So be it.

The Divine Compassion of Christ | Homily for Trinity II

‘When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’

In nomine…

The widow of Nain, to whom Jesus speaks this morning, is a woman who has lost everything. Not only is she grieving over the death of her only

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The Sacred Heart of Jesus

son but, in the context of 1st century Palestine, she is also staring into the abyss of the future. A widow in the first century, left with no children, is a person without any security, she has suddenly been thrust to the margins of society and will, from now on, be left to rely on the kindness of strangers or simply resign herself to fate and find a place to die. In short, this is a woman with every reason to weep. Yet, the Lord stumbles upon the funeral procession and, seeing her pain, is moved with compassion and wipes away her tears. This word compassion is one of the most poignant in the Gospels – it does not refer to ‘feeling sorry’ for her or taking pity on her – but rather that Jesus suffers with her, literally in the Greek that his heart breaks for her.

This is a very appropriate reading for today as the Roman Catholic Church celebrated on Friday the Sacred Heart of Jesus, introduced into Anglican devotion by the Franciscans as ‘the Divine Compassion of Christ’. This is not a solemnity well known in the Anglican Church but I’m sure many of us can picture one of the kitsch images of the sacred heart, which tend to focus on a pale Jesus with rosy cheeks piously pointing at his exposed heart, I think the idea of the Sacred Heart has much to say to us as Christians and I’d like to use my final homily in Corpus to think about how this particular devotion draws us into the mystery of God and calls us to a radical change of heart ourselves. In our College particularly, this is a poignant thing to reflect on – the founders of Corpus, using the evocative symbol of the Pelican, wanted to draw our attention to the unfathomable love of God, who pours out his own life for us on the altar and feeds us with own self.

The more time I have spent meditating on this mystery, the more I have become convinced that it is only in the broken heart of Jesus that the love of God can be found – in Jesus’ heart suffering with all who cry out in pain, with all who mourn or are left on the margins, the heart of Jesus’ moved with compassion for the poor and those whose own hearts have been corrupted in grasping for money, power or status. The love of God is found in the broken heart of Jesus. This is at the very heart of the Christian faith – as we hear proclaimed at Christmas, the Son, begotten in eternity from the heart of the Father, lives among us as our brother. In the life of Jesus of Nazareth we see as much God as humanity can hold. We see this so powerfully in our Gospel reading today – the Creator God, incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth is able to bring life from death and hope from despair. The Son comes from the heart of the Father and is united to a human heart and, when this heart is broken for the life of the world, we come to share in his divine life.

God does not love us as we are accustomed to love each other – according to merit or worth, according to how much like us the object of our love is. God does not love us because we deserve it or because we have earned it or because we have something that God needs that he lacks in his own nature. Instead, God is love. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is trying to make this point visually – giving us a centre of meditation and devotion – because to express the wonders of God’s love in Christ verbally is almost impossible and to accept this requires a lifetime.

This wondrous love, which holds nothing back, is the reason why devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus ought to be central to the Church’s faith and proclamation. Faced with the ineffable mystery of the divine compassion, our response is adoration – but the challenge of the Gospel is not only to adore the sacred heart but to conform our lives to this self-sacrifical outpouring of love. As the traditional prayer has it:

I adore Thee, O most Sacred Heart of Jesus,
inflame my heart with the divine love with which Thine Own is all on fire.

Our meditation on the sacred heart remains another load of pious rubbish, unless we heed the second line of this prayer – ‘inflame my heart’. This should be our daily prayer! When we adore the mystery of God’s eternal outpouring of reckless love, incarnate in the human heart of Jesus, we too must set our hearts on fire. With Jesus as our pioneer, we are called to imitate his compassion and join in his shameless love and self-giving mission to bind up the broken hearts of the human family. To be conformed to the great mystery we proclaim is to share in his work.

As many of us prepare to leave the relative comfort of our college walls and go out into the world, my prayer is that we can do this under the banner of the sacred heart. But that’s easier said than done. To confess Jesus Christ as Lord is to frustrate many of the marks of human success which society has laid out for us. To enthrone Jesus in your heart is to be driven to the margins of society – to seek your treasure amongst the poor. To pray for our hearts to be inflamed with the love of God is dangerous – it is a prayer to make the suffering of the human family your own: it is a prayer which takes away any comfortable indifference. As we leave Corpus or if we are staying, the sacred heart of Jesus reminds us that we can never turn our back on the suffering of the human family: we must feed and campaign for the poor and hungry; fight all the systems of this world which prevent human flourishing and we must rid ourselves of the market-logic that says people our only worth as much as the good we can get out of them. To be inflamed with the love of Christ is not a pious sentiment – it should make us uncomfortable with the systems of this world which keep the poor poor and make the rich richer.

Praying for our hearts to be conformed to the heart of Jesus will bring about the transformation of our lives. If we, like Christ, have hearts which are moved with compassion for all who cannot live to their full potential and are moved with indignation for all who have suffered wrong – then we cannot simply carry on as we are. We have to start making decisions that put the needs of the poor above our own, decisions that preserve our vulnerable earth and safeguard the flourishing of every member of the human family.

My prayer, each and everyday is that the sacred heart of Jesus would inflame my heart with the most excellent gift of love. I pray this for each one of you and especially those of us about to set off into the world. I pray that, in the midst of our confused and messy lives, people may catch a glimpse of the divine compassion of Jesus – that, in us, the love which burns at the beating heart of the universe may be experienced.

I adore Thee, O most Sacred Heart of Jesus,
inflame my heart with the divine love with which Thine Own is all on fire.
Amen.

Justin Martyr: Faith in the Public Square

Exciting Holiness gives us this hagiography of Justin, Martyr at Rome, whose feast day is today.

Justin was born of a pagan family at the beginning of the second century in Palestine. As a young man he explored many different philosophies before at the age of thirty embracing Christianity. He continued to wear the distinctive dress of a professional philosopher, and taught Christianity as a philosophy first at Ephesus, and later at Rome. He became an outstanding apologist for the Christian faith, and is honoured as the first Christian thinker to enter into serious dialogue with the other intellectual disciplines of his day, including Judaism. Justin always sought to reconcile the claims of faith and reason. It was at Rome in about 165 that he and some of his disciples were denounced as Christians, and beheaded. The authentic record of their martyrdom based on an official court report has survived. Traditionally, Justin is often surnamed ‘Martyr’ because of his two-fold witness to Christ, through his apologetic writings and his manner of death.

Иустин_Философ,_АфонAfter hearing this at Mass this morning, I wanted to explore something of the message of Justin Martyr, one of the greatest early witnesses to the Faith of Christ. Brutally murdered in 165 AD because he was unwilling to offer worship to the emperor and gods of Rome, having spent his life articulating the faith of Christ as a philosopher in the public square. For Justin, fidelity to Christ was more important than his own life  – he found in Christ the wisdom and power of God.

 

‘For those who are called… Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.’ (From 1 Corinthians).

Saint Justin was a man of prodigious intellectual gifts and he placed all this to the service of the Church’s mission. The Church, faced with the opposition of the Roman state in the second century, had to struggle to survive. Professing the Christian faith was considered to be treason, punishable by death. As well as this, Christians were cultural outsiders – the elites of Roman culture had their own gods and values, and to most of the Romans, Christian faith just seemed odd, if not completely unintelligible. Justin, empowered by divine grace, made it his mission to make the case for Christian faith. He presents reasoned arguments to the what and why of Christian belief and the practices of the Church.

This made Saint Justin a very dangerous man to those invested in the Roman system of power and privilege. For those who opposed the Church, there was no god but Caesar and no way of life other than the Roman way, a way of life that supremely valued wealth, pleasure, power and honours above anything else.

We might not feel that the Church is dangerously subversive, but for Justin, the Church was considered to be a threat, and was dealt with as such by those in power. Christians were persecuted. Their property was seized. Their institutions were closed. Their worship was ridiculed. Bishops and priests were arrested. And men and women like Justin, who presented Christian beliefs as credible, and the Christian way of life as worthwhile, were considered public enemies. The Church’s way of life required risk and sacrifices, and because people like Justin, were willing to take the risk and make the sacrifices, the Church not only survived, it flourished and grew. As Tertullian recognised at this time, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.

Central to Justin’s witness was that the Church was a public reality, not a private club. The Church existed to engage and create public culture. The purpose of the Church was to be seen and heard, as it had a message and a mission that was for everyone, not just for a privileged few. This is not simply evangelism (in the sense of calling people to worship Christ, although that is a necessary part of it) but the Church proclaiming to the culture an alternative way of living – a way of living which is not centred around wealth, privilege or power. Justin’s witness that the Church was a public reality grated on those who believed that Roman power was absolute and could have no rivals. For Justin and the Church’s opponents of the Church, the Roman way was the only way.

However, in this culture, Saint Justin believed that Jesus Christ is the Way, and he would rather die than deny his faith in Jesus Christ, and for this reason, above all, the Church remembers him and recalls his courage. The Church suffers persecution in every age of her life. We have the privilege of practicing our faith in relative freedom, but many Christians struggle and many Christians will, like Saint Justin, suffer and die in our age because of their faith in Jesus Christ.

On this day that the Church calls us to remember Saint Justin, I hope we can also remember and pray for the many Christians who today will suffer and die for the faith they profess and the way of life they practice.

For them, and for all the Church, we pray:

God our Redeemer,
who through the folly of the cross taught your martyr Justin
the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ:
remove from us every kind of error
that we, like him, may be firmly grounded in the faith,
and make your name known to all peoples;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Amen.

Pray for us St. Justin, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ!