Our Lenten Springtime | Homily

One of the most significant changes in myself since I left university is that – for the first time ever – I know make a conscious effort to keep my bedroom tidy. I’ve reached 21 and decided that now is the time to stop living in a hovel and start caring about my room. However, despite my best efforts, there remains one drawer where all my unsightly rubbish and no longer needed junk ends up. Instead of living in the debris of my life as I did as a teenager, I have shoved it all in one drawer. I’m sure most of us have that one cupboard or even room in our house which we’d rather our visitors didn’t see and which we’re never quite sure what to do with!

Just as it’s true of our houses, I suspect this is also true of our lives. We are very good at presenting the best version of ourselves – even subconsciously – but we rarely open up the doors of that messy room where we store our guilt, the aspects of our character or our history which we’d rather not open up to anyone – even to God. Yet, God longs for you to be a temple of his Holy Spirit and the place where he may come and abide, even in that messy room that we hide because of our shame.

The slow and uncomfortable process of opening up that messy room of guilt and shame to God, of opening our lives and hearts more and more to him, is a key part of the discipline of Lent. In the earliest centuries of the Church, newcomers to the Christian community were baptized at Easter – that time when the Church celebrates the conquest of death and the beginning of new life. But of course, believers had to be prepared for this great event, prepared by study, and prayer, and self-denial. It was believed that self-denial; fasting and extra prayer was something that, as it were, clears the way for God to make his home in you – like clearing space in your flower bed for bulbs to break through.

This is how Lent began. A period where people were thinking about baptism and the beginning of new life, whether literally as new converts to the Christian faith or – for the rest of the Church – people wanting to strengthen and renew their commitment.

This period of preparation quickly became associated with Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness where, through fasting and praying, he discovered what God was asking of him. During this earliest period it became more and more common for churches to tidy-up and strip away some of their decoration, to make themselves look a bit simpler – an outward manifestation of the inner stripping and inner austerity that this service entailed. Vestments were made either of sack-cloth, simple coarse fabric, or purple, associated with judgement and the season began with Ash Wednesday – where believers were reminded of their mortality and called to turn again to Christ.

All this simplicity and stripping away is important – in fact its vital in that process of clearing a space in our lives to experience Jesus afresh at Easter. However, it’s also important to remember that the word Lent itself comes from the middle English word for ‘spring’. This season is not about feeling gloomy for forty days; it’s not about making yourself miserable; it’s not even just about giving things up. Lent is springtime. Its our annual spring-clean as we prepare for that great climax of springtime which is Easter- new life bursting through death and flooding the world afresh with hope.

And Spring is exactly how this season feels – especially when we look at the incredibly rich reading from Romans 5 which we had as our second lessons. At first glance this can seem a rather gloomy passage – about the universal subjection of humanity to sin and death, and that is part of the story! But there’s another dimension, the abundance of Christ’s grace and mercy. Sin is wintry but like the flowers of spring, the forgiving love of God in Christ abounds and gives life to all. Death and sin are destroyed by an opponent who utterly overwhelms evil will the abundance and generosity of his love. In Lent, we return again to Christ the fountain of mercy, and seek to make room in our hearts to know and experience his abundant love for us.

If you would permit me, much out of character, I’d like to offer a couple of concrete suggestions for keeping a holy Lent this spring. Firstly, find some regular time to encounter Christ in Holy Scripture. I suggest reading Luke’s Gospel from beginning to end – it’s not that long – taking it in small manageable chunks and asking yourselves two basic questions about each bit you read: ‘what is this passage saying to me?’ and ‘how am I going to respond to it?’. With prayer and patience, this engagement with the words of Scripture is a vital part of clearing a space for the risen Lord when he comes.

Secondly, and more practically still, I believe a good Lent always flows out in generosity.  There are innumerable ways to try to be more generous in this season – whether with money, time or prayer – but I would like to suggest one that is often neglected. In this season, I would encourage you to attend to the relationships in your life and especially those you have neglected over the past twelve months. Is there someone who really irritates you or who you struggle to love, befriend them, pray them and try to restore that relationship? Is there a sick or elderly friend or relative you’ve neglected to visit in the last few months, make time to rebuild that relationship in the weeks ahead. Perhaps, harder still, there is a relationship in your life that remains damaged – a relationship that haunts that inner room of guilt. Allow the new life offered to us in this season to flow through you – cross over barriers of pride and reach out to say you’re sorry; work to be reconciled and begin to make your life evermore a place where God would be pleased to dwell.

And so as we prepare ourselves for Easter during these days, by prayer and self-denial, we must remember that what motivates us and fills the horizon of this season is not self-denial as an end in itself but tying to sweep and clean the room of our own minds and hearts so that new life really may have room to come in and take over and transform us when Easter dawns.

Amen.

Homily: The Resurrection says ‘Listen’

Readings: Acts 9.1-6 & John 21.1-19

‘After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’’

In nomine…

It isn’t often you hear people complain about the commercialisation of Easter: talking about all the Easter shopping; the hundreds of cards to be written; the huge number of parties; not to mention the endless stream of Easter adverts and cheesy films on our televisions. For some reason, Easter, despite being the most significant festival of the liturgical year, has stubbornly resisted the commodification that has swallowed up Christmas and left the season one more of dread than the joyful celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord. I was wondering about this question a lot this year how has Easter – with the

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The Mensa Christi (Table of Christ) on which he served breakfast in our Gospel reading – I have had the immense privilege of praying with and venerating this beautiful site in Galilee.

exception of ever-expanding baskets of eggs – maintained its relative religious purity? The answer, I would say, is the subversive message it carries with it: three simple words, Christ is risen.

 

‘Christ is risen’ is the most extraordinary declaration of the Christian faith and is also a pretty easy one to understand, whether you believe in it or not. Jesus of Nazareth, the man whose followers claim that he healed the sick, stilled storms, raised people from the dead and made the poor the centre of his ministry, was crucified under the orders of Pontius Pilate and died an agonising death in Jerusalem. Then, as his followers believe – include many of us here – after three days in the tomb, he rose from the dead.

If you don’t believe in the resurrection, you can go on living your life while perhaps admiring the example of Jesus, even practicing some of his teachings. But, at the same time, you can set aside those teachings that you disagree with or that make you uncomfortable – you don’t have to forgive your enemies, pray for your persecutors, live simply or risk death for Christ’s sake. If you don’t believe the sentence, ‘Christ is risen’ you can set all these demands aside because Jesus is just another great teacher among many.

But, if you believe that Jesus rose from the dead everything changes. If this simple claim is true, you cannot set aside any of his teaching because a person who rises from the grave, who demonstrates his power over death and who has definitively proven his divine authority needs to be listened to, he need to be followed as he says to Peter at the end of our Gospel reading. What that person says demands a response. The Resurrection makes a claim on you.

The Resurrection makes a claim on you.

The Easter story is both appalling and astonishing: the cruel betrayal of Jesus by one of his closest followers, the triple denial of his best friend, the gruesome crucifixion and the brutal end to his earthly life. Then, of course, there is the stunning turnaround three days later. Easter isn’t commercialised like Christmas because it’s so much harder to take – anyone can be born in a snowy stable with lambs and funny visitors – not everyone can rise from the dead.

Yet the Easter story, essential as it is for Christian belief, can be a confusing one, even for us who believe. To begin with, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ appearances after the Resurrection can seem confounding, they are even contradictory. They are mysterious in the extreme. In John’s Gospel alone, we have Mary Magdalen who mistakes the Lord for a gardener and only knows him when he speaks her name, ‘Mariam.’ What is going on? How could Mary not recognise the person that she has been following for so long? More confusion follows in John – on one hand, Jesus appears as an almost ghostly figure, apparently able to walk through locked doors; but this morning he sits and eats breakfast. Ghostly and yet physical, recognisable but unrecognisable. Which is it? How could Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have presented the details of such an important story with such seeming contradictions? The agnostic or atheist will point to this as proof that it never happened. But I think it’s quite the opposite.

Most likely, I would claim, the narratives reflect the struggle of the eyewitnesses and, later, the evangelists to understand and communicate what they had experienced. After all, no one had ever encountered what theologians call the “glorified body,” the appearance of Jesus after the Resurrection. So they naturally struggled to explain it. It was him, but more. It was his body, but something else. It was like this, but not like this. If the Gospel writers were intent on getting their stories straight and providing airtight narratives with no inconsistencies, each would have made sure to agree with the others, so as not to give rise to any doubt or confusion (a process partly visible in the accounts of the Crucifixion). Instead, the Gospel writers, composing their accounts at different times and for different communities, simply reported what they had experienced and what they had been told. And what they had been told was beyond telling.

The risen Christ bursting from the tomb is so beyond the language and experience of those first witnesses that, instead of systematising the stories into something coherent they preserve for us those first stories – stories which so set ablaze a group of Palestinian nobodies and one violent pharisee that they carried the story to the ends of the earth. There may not be one coherent account of what Jesus was like when he rose from the grave, and God only knows what we’d see if there was a CCTV camera in the tomb – but the resurrection of Christ was so certain to those first women and men that they left their fishing nets and set out, many to their deaths.

What difference does Easter make in the life of the Christian? The message of Easter is, all at once, easy to understand, radical, subversive and life-changing. Easter means that nothing is impossible with God. Moreover, that life triumphs over death. Love triumphs over hatred. Hope triumphs over despair. And that suffering is not the last word. For Peter and Paul, it means a complete transformation of life: Paul, a persecutor of Christians, becomes their greatest apostle; Peter, a fisherman from a backwater of the Roman Empire travels to Rome and is crucified upside-down because he believed his friend had risen from the dead.

Easter reminds us, as it reminded Paul and the disciples, that Jesus Christ is Lord. And if he is Lord then what he says has a claim on you. His teachings are invitations, to be sure, but they are also commandments: Love your neighbours. Forgive. Feed my sheep. Care for the poor and the marginalised. Live a simple life. Put the needs of others before your own. From now on, the universe has changed and whoever wants to keep their life must lose it for Christ.

Jesus’ message still has the power to make us feel uncomfortable, as it did in first-century Palestine. It was just as much of a challenge to pray for your enemies in antiquity. It was no easier to hear Jesus’ judgment against the excesses of the wealthy during a time of degrading poverty for so many. It was just as subversive a message to be asked to pray for your persecutors as it is now.

By walking out of the tomb on Easter morning and sitting on the beach to cook fish with hands which still bear the fatal scars of the Cross, Jesus declared something life-changing, something subversive and something that cannot be overcome by any commercialisation. It is a message that refuses to be tamed. The Resurrection says not only that Christ has the power of life over death, but something more subversive.

The Resurrection says, ‘Listen.’

Alleluia.

‘Let all corners of the earth be glad…’

Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her,
ablaze with light from her eternal King,
let all corners of the earth be glad,
knowing an end to gloom and darkness. – The Exsultet (Easter Proclamation)

The highlight of the liturgy of the Easter Vigil is the Exslutet, the great proclamation of Easter, sung in the light of the new Paschal Candle. The Exsultet proclaims the resurrection of Christ, calling on the Angels to sound the trumpet of salvation; the Church to resound with praise and the whole of creation to be glad – ‘ablaze with light from her eternal king.’ Creation, then, forms the ancient heart of this greatest hymn of praise. In our own day concerns about ecology are rising; climate change, pollution, and the unnatural extinction of plants and animals is causing us to question the way we treat the natural world. I firmly believe that the Christian response ought to be a return to the doctrine of creation, the centrality of which can hardly be overemphasised. The doctrine of creation is simple: all things were created by God, who saw it was ‘very good’ (Gen. 1.31) and affirms its value in his own eyes. We human beings are created in the divine image, as part of this community of life, in order to till and care for it, not to destroy it (Gen. 2.15).

The Exsultet proclaims that creation, gladdened by the joy of the resurrection, is intimately bound up with the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the Word incarnate through whom and for whom all things were made (Romans 11.36). At the core of our faith is the truth that in Jesus Christ God became a human being in order to redeem us, in the words of the Christmas Gospel – ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1.14). The Word is the second person of the Trinity, God’s own self-communication, uttered from all eternity and flesh refers to what is material, vulnerable, invite and what is not divine. This is the radical claim of our faith: God became what is not God, he became material in order to save us.

While, of course, the writers of the Exslutet would have been aware of the related doctrines of creation and incarnation, they could not have predicted how modern scientific discovery would enhance and colour this doctrine in the last two centuries. We now know that our human flesh is part of the great chain of evolution on earth, which in turn is part of one solar system within trillions, which in turn came into being as part of a long cosmic history.

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The prevailing scientific theory is that everything that exists comes from a single blazing instant around 13.7 billion years ago; a single speck explodes in what is (inelegantly) known as the Big Bang – an immeasurable outpouring of matter and energy which continues to this day. As this material expanded, its lumpy unevenness allowed swirling galaxies to form as the force of gravity pulled particles together and their dense friction ignited the stars. Roughly five billion years ago some of these ageing stars died. They exploded into great supernovas, which fused basic hydrogen into more complex elements. Out of these clouds of dust and gas, some material reformed and re-ignited to become our Sun, a second-generation star. Some coalesced into chunks too small to catch fire these formed the planets of our solar system—including Earth.

Three and a half billion years ago on this planet (and, almost certainly on others) there began another momentous change – molecules coalesced to form living cells. Over aeons these developed into creatures that could ‘be fruitful and multiply’ and life is born. So, out of the Big Bang comes stars; from stardust comes the Earth; out of the raw matter of the Earth comes life. This life burst forth from the life and death of single-celled creatures into an advancing tide: trilobites, fish, amphibians, insects, flowers, birds, reptiles, and mammals, among whom came human beings—mammals with brains so complex that we experience self-conscious intelligence and freedom.

This scientific story, teaches us that everything is connected to everything else. In the famous words of Arthur Peacocke (scientist and theologian), ‘every atom of iron in our blood would not be there had it not been produced in some galactic explosion billions of years ago and eventually condensed to form the iron in the crust of the Earth from which we have emerged.’ Quite literally human beings are made of stardust. And, more than that, we share with all other living creatures a common genetic ancestry in the great community of life.

While the human capacity for thought and love are unique, they are not something injected into the universe from outside. Rather, they are the flowering in us of deeply cosmic energies. In the human species nature becomes conscious of itself and open to fulfilment in grace and glory. In the words of the Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel, this makes human beings the “cantors of the universe,” able to sing praise and thanks in the name of all the rest.

When we understand the human species in these terms, as an intrinsic part of cosmic matter, this hugely enriches the way we understand the incarnation. From this perspective, the human flesh that the Word became is part of the vast body of the cosmos. This is called by theologians “deep incarnation,” as it expresses this radical divine reach into the very tissue of all biological existence and the wider system of the cosmos. Like all human beings, Jesus carried within himself the traces of supernovas and the whole history of life on earth. The genetic structure of his cells made him part of the whole community of life that descended from common ancestors in the ancient seas. The flesh that the Word became thus reaches beyond Jesus and other human beings to encompass the whole biological world of living creatures and the cosmic dust of which we are composed.

This “deep” way of reflecting on the incarnation provides an important insight. By becoming flesh the Word of God confers blessing on the whole of earthly reality in its material dimension, and beyond that, on the cosmos in which the Earth exists. Rather than being a barrier that distances us from the divine, this material world becomes a sacrament that can reveal divine presence. Christians must turn away from anything that is world-denying – instead, far from spiritual contempt for the world, we are to ally ourselves with the living God by loving the whole natural world, which is all part of the flesh that the Word became. Again, in the words of the Exsultet:

O truly blessed night,
when things of heaven are wed to those of earth,
and divine to the human.

This perspective is radical, it calls each one of us to the upmost respect for creation because ‘the whole creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God’ (Romans 8.9). This world, created by the same God who entered into this incredible story two thousand years ago in Nazareth, is precious and beloved – it yearns in every atom for salvation. This perspective encompasses not only life on earth, but the life of every planet in the universe, for it is from stardust that all is made. From the Cross, Jesus spoke a word translated into Greek as τετέλεσται, ‘it is finished.’ In meditating on this we
remember that, on the Cross, Christ enters into the depth of our fragile creation – he experiences the reality common to all creatures; death. He accomplishes his great work of Recreation and forever charges the universe with his power and presence. In this perspective, it is no surprise that the Resurrection happened in a garden, for every budding flower and ancient tree cries out in triumph as our stardust is redeemed and all creation is charged with resurrection glory. Alleluia.

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,
Wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.mp5345web-900x900.png