3rd Sunday of Lent – God’s foolish message
This week the gospel reading is the passage from early on in John’s gospel where Jesus throws all the moneychangers and traders out of the Temple. No doubt they all wondered why he behaved in such a way. The New Testament reading is Saint Paul talking about the foolishness of the cross. Both passages highlight that God acts in a way contrary to the world’s expectations.
Here’s what I said.
Exodus 20.1-7; 1 Corinthians 1.18-25; John 2.12-22
What do you look for in a new vicar? Don’t worry, I’m not planning on leaving just yet! But I want you to think about what qualities you would expect.
It’s the policy in some churches of other denominations, when a congregation is seeking to appoint a new minister, to ask them to come and “preach with a view”. What this means is that the elders will be able to see a prospective minister and hear them preach with a view to them becoming their pastor. And, of course, if they don’t like what they see and hear, then they try someone else. I wonder how churches that do this would have reacted to Saint Paul turning up as one of the applicants.
How would Paul have fared? Well, Paul was under no illusions about himself. He knew his limitations. He was very good at expounding arguments when writing, but he knew that he wasn’t a particularly good preacher. No preaching from notes in those days – not even any written preparation beforehand – and he simply wasn’t very good at standing up and speaking. Neither did he look the part. And in these visual days we all know how important that is, for example, to politicians and the like. You need to look good or the cartoonists will have a field day!
And Paul knew precisely what people in the church at Corinth thought about him for he tells us in his second letter to Corinth how they describe him. And they describe him, he tells us, like this: “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.” One early document that is not in the New Testament describes him as “bald-headed, bow-legged, strongly built, a man small in size, with meeting eyebrows, and with a rather large nose…” Any church that invited Paul to “preach with a view” would no doubt be left thinking that while his application was well written, he didn’t look the part and his preaching was boring, and he simply wasn’t what they wanted. I doubt he’d get the job.
Yet, while Paul was fully aware of his own shortcomings, he also knew that God had called him to be an apostle. And he saw his own lack of oratory as a symbol of how God works in the world by overturning the world’s wisdom and replacing it with a gospel that seems to many to be sheer foolishness. What a good job that when God was looking for an apostle to the Gentiles he didn’t first of all invite Paul to “preach with a view”! But of course that’s not how God works, is it? God simply does not do things the way the world does – far from it, he positively chooses to behave differently.
And today in our gospel reading and in our New Testament reading we hear how God doesn’t play according to the rules – or at least according to the world’s rules. For the way God works in the world is counter-cultural. And we’ll come back to that in a moment.
Let’s begin with our second reading. We hear Paul writing to the church in Corinth. And it’s interesting that life Corinth wasn’t really much different from life in London or any other great city today. It was a city with a reputation – a reputation for fast money and fast living. It overlooked two seaports, one facing east and one facing west, and consequently the overland route from one to the other brought countless travellers and traders through the city, people seeking to avoid the treacherous sea journey around the southern tip of Greece. It was full of delights for the passing traveller – from the lavish banquets at the sanctuary of Asclepius to the somewhat questionable rituals at the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, with its thousand slaves attending to the needs of the visitors.
And Corinth’s class of nouveau riche was growing fast and pocketing the profits. It was a city of good living and – for some – good money. And many in the congregation in the church at Corinth seem to be wealthy, upper class, educated – and proud of their knowledge of wisdom, proud of their understanding.
And Paul’s message to them is “Forget it! Forget all this wisdom! God overturns the ways of the wise and acts foolishly in the world.
I said earlier that the way God works in the world is counter-cultural. God does not act according to any society’s cultural expectations. He overturns those expectations and acts in a way that, when you examine it, is often disturbing or shocking to those who do not believe.
Recently the Church of England has been criticised by many outside the Church for not reflecting the views of society over equality. This was seen over the debate about women bishops, and many were critical of the Church and said it needed to realise that it was out of step with society as a whole. We now have our first woman bishop, and it was the right decision – but it was the right decision because it was what God wanted, not because it was what society wanted. Take a good look at the Bible and you soon see that God doesn’t do things because society says it’s what it wants.
A more recent example is the recent report issued by the house of bishops about poverty in this country. Many criticised them for – as they saw it – meddling in politics. Yet it is not the Church’s role to say what people want to hear and to keep quiet about things people don’t want to hear, but to convey God’s message even when that is uncomfortable and unwanted.
For it is not the case that the Church should be in step with society, but in step with God. And one of the problems with God is that he often acts in ways that are completely out of step with what society wants or expects. And Paul shows us that in this extract from his letter.
Once in a while it does us good as Christians to take a step back and recognise just how odd – and indeed, just how shocking – our faith appears to those who do not believe. For the claim of Christians is that God does not act according to societal norms. He doesn’t act how people think he ought to, but overturns what Paul calls “the wisdom of the world”, shows it to be foolishness, and in its place gives us the cross. The cross – something that itself is, in the world’s terms, “foolish”.
Think about it. Our faith as Christians is based upon an event that in purely wordly terms doesn’t make any sense. We Christians believe that the single most important event in history is the humiliating and degrading death of a poor Jewish itinerant preacher at the hands of an occupying power. For this is the point at which we believe God acted to bring the gift of salvation from sin and the gift of eternal life to those who believe. The central symbol of our faith is the equivalent in modern terms of a hangman’s noose or an electric chair. No wonder Paul calls it “the foolishness or our proclamation, the foolishness of what we preach.” The central act of God in human history is not a demonstration of power but a demonstration of weakness, the death Jesus on the cross. Like it or not from a purely human point of view it’s an odd way for God to behave, and it still seems odd to many people today. Yet, Paul says, God overturns the ways that the world thinks are right and does things that seem ridiculous. Through the foolishness of the cross, he says, God decided to save those who believe. God overturns the ways of the world and behaves in a way that makes no apparent sense whatsoever. That’s how God does things.
In our gospel reading today we also hear about things being overturned. In this case, of course, it’s the tables of the moneychangers and the traders in the temple. Now, I’ve no doubt that none of them thought they were doing anything wrong. What they were doing had been going on for years. The Romans weren’t bothered by it. The religious leaders were happy about it. The people needed to exchange their Roman money for Jewish coins to pay the temple tax, and they needed to buy their sacrificial animals somewhere! It was the way of things. What was the problem? Where was the harm in it?
But Jesus wades in, risking the accusation that he is getting involved in politics, in matters that do not concern him, and throws them all out. This is not God’s ways of doing things is his message. It might be a system that seems to work and that everyone seems to be happy with – but no matter. Jesus throws out the whole Temple economic system that people relied upon and tells them they’ve got it all wrong. His Father’s house is not to be a marketplace. God’s ways are different.
In fact, the Temple was the place where originally, in the holy of holies, the tablets of stone that recorded the Ten Commandments had been housed along with the Ark of the Covenant, in which the people believed God became present among his people. The Temple was a place where people recalled God’s commandments about how to love God and one another, and where they encountered his presence among his people on earth. It was God’s house and Jesus was shocked by how it was treated.
There is, in the cleansing of the Temple by Jesus, a parable of the way we need to allow Jesus to act in our lives. In overturning the tables and cleansing the temple he reminds us all that sometimes we all need to allow him in to overturn those things that are getting in the way, to cleanse us from things that are wrong, to throw out old and familiar ways that we cling to because they are comfortable. There may be things in our lives, things in our society, things in our culture, that in themselves seem perfectly harmless – but they are getting in the way of us living out the gospel in our lives and of allowing Jesus to rule over our hearts. Lent is a time for allowing Jesus to clear out the clutter in the temples of our hearts and refilling them with prayer.
For God’s ways are different. And through the apparent foolishness of a death upon a cross God calls us to follow his son by leading lives that reject the wisdom of the world and embrace the apparent foolishness of living gospel-filled lives – lives where Jesus is at the centre.
We need to let in the God who overturns wisdom and the ways of the world and who doesn’t stick to the world’s rules. We need to embrace the foolishness of the cross. This Lent may we learn once again to be used by God to bring his foolish message to our world.
Holy Cross Day
A little late, but here is the sermon that the priest I live with preached for Holy Cross Day here at St John’s.
On this day, the 14th September, one thousand six hundred and seventy nine years ago, a part of the cross of Jesus, discovered by Saint Helena, was taken out from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – out from the church which had been dedicated just the day before – taken outside so that all the believers in Jesus Christ could come and venerate it. Holy Cross Day is kept on this day to commemorate that event. And this year there seems to be a rather satisfactory symmetry about the date. It is of course today the 14th September 2014, and it so happens that the 14th September this year is a Sunday, so we can gather here together at our normal Sunday service on Holy Cross Day itself, to both commemorate that occasion in 335AD and to celebrate together the life giving cross of Jesus. It is appropriate too that we should have a baptism in our service today, as later I will sign N. with the sign of the Cross. How wonderful for her to be given that sign on Holy Cross Day. Continue reading
Palm Sunday – and what I said
It was, of course, Palm Sunday this week. Here’s what I said.
Matthew 21.1-11 (Palm Gospel) and Matthew 27.11-54 (Passion Gospel)
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.
Charles Dickens could have been writing about Palm Sunday. Continue reading
What I said for Christ the King
This Sunday was the feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the Church’s year. Here’s what I said.
Jeremiah 23.1-6; Colossians 1.11-20; Luke 23.33-43
I know that we have people here who enjoy quizzes – whether on the TV or radio or the quizzes we have from time to time at one of our social events here at St. John’s. I’m a great listener to radio quizzes, mainly because there is usually one on Radio 4 at 11pm on a Saturday night, so I can listen to one before retiring for the necessary beauty sleep I need to get up ready to take the 8 o’clock communion service. At the moment we are getting the Round Britain Quiz where the questions consist of three or four apparently unconnected facts and the teams have to find what links them.
Well, here’s a question for you this morning. I used this with the children at school last year, though they got the benefit of pictures to go with the question. What is the link between these.
- A potato
- A gorilla
- Elvis Presley
- Henry VIII
What I said for Remembrance Sunday
Here’s my sermon for Remembrance Sunday.
Peace is an emotive word. It’s a word that conjures up all kinds of feelings within us. It is something that we all seek in life. We look around our world and see so many places, so many people, that need peace. And yet it seems so elusive. Having now passed the twelfth anniversary of the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, it is, I am sure, something that we all pray and hope for. And yet the reality of our world is that peace is so elusive. Even when not involved in our own conflicts British forces have been involved so much in peace-keeping duties around the world and will continue to be called upon in that role.
Next year we reach the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of The Great War. This year we might think of as the 100th anniversary of the end of peace – the end of a world that had yet to be confronted with the reality of modern warfare.The end of a world in which no-one really could imagine the horrors that the world would face in two world wars and so many other conflicts. And over that 100 years so many have lost their lives – both those who have fought, and so many innocents. And we gather here again to remember those from our own nation who have given their lives, and to commit ourselves to continue to work for the peace for which they fought.
The great paradox of peace is that it is often only achieved as a result of conflict. And since the year 1900 there has only been one year when no-one from the British services died in action – 1968. And today we remember those who achieved the peace we enjoy at the cost of their own lives, those who have given everything for their country, and we pray for those who still mourn for relatives and friends who never returned. And we pray for those who still struggle to come to terms with their experience of war. For the casualties of war include not just those who die, but often those who survive but who have witnessed, or endured themselves, great suffering.
The poppy that we wear is a powerful symbol of our feelings on this day, associated as it is with the fields where so many died in the First World War, growing as such a simple and yet powerful symbol of life and self-sacrifice in a place where so much destruction had been wrought. It is a symbol with a double meaning – it reminds us of those who never returned from the conflicts in which our country has been involved. As such it looks to the past. But the poppy also looks to the future – it is a symbol of hope – for it reminds us that we must all continue to strive for that peace that so many gained for us with their lives. It reminds us that today is a day of both looking backwards and looking forwards. And yet it has been hard not to notice, as I have walked about Caterham this week, that so many people don’t wear a poppy.
I remember as a child almost everyone wearing one. You were unusual if you didn’t. Because most adults, when I was a young child, still remembered the Second World War vividly. They all knew people who had fought and suffered and died. And their parents and my grandparents were the generation who had lived and fought and died in the Great War. So they wore a poppy. Today, those of my age group and younger don’t have the same experience. And so for many remembrance doesn’t seem so important, and those who wear a poppy today stand out. So many people today – in spite of the accessibility of news through television and the newspapers – have no direct experience of war, either as a combatant or as a civilian or as a relative or friend of someone serving.
I said earlier that today is a day both of looking backwards and looking forwards. As you came to church this morning you will have heard our bells ringing. And our bells themselves are a symbol of both mourning and of hope. As always they are rung on this day half-muffled. That means that the bell clapper, the part that strikes the bell, is covered on one side so that it makes that softer, rather sombre sound, every second time the bells ring. So the bells alternate between a rather mournful sounding ring, so appropriate to today and so expressive of our feelings, with a brighter and more joyful sounding ring.
But there is one thing about our bells that you can’t see or hear. The bells originally hung in the church of St Mary at Lambeth, just by the entrance to Lambeth Palace, the London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury in central London by the river Thames. They were brought here in 1975 after St Mary at Lambeth was made redundant. The church is now a garden centre museum. Each bell, in the traditional manner, bears an inscription of some kind. The fifth bell is inscribed with this:
14.8.1914 – 11.11.1918.
Silent I hung in war, I sang the hour of peace.
O England, evermore pray thou that wars may cease.
And on Armistice Day, the day that war ended, the 11th November 1918, that bell that now hangs in our tower, that had hung silently for four years, rang out across London as it sang the hour of peace.
Today is a day of both of looking backwards and of looking forwards. And it is in Jesus Christ that we can find a sense of hope for the future as we remember today those who died as a result of war and conflict. And we find it in the cross upon which he died. The cross reminds us that Christ himself undertook the supreme sacrifice. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends said Jesus, before he did just that for each and every one of us. Laying down his life for us on the cross, only to rise again on the third day to show us the way to eternal life.
Today we remember all who have died as a result of war – and give thanks too for all those who risked their lives but came home. And as we remember today those who have made that sacrifice of life itself – of giving their lives in the service of their countries and of their families and communities – we can give thanks for them, know the assurance that Christ gives us that they are at rest with him for eternity, and dedicate our lives to the service of the communities for which they died. We must always remember – for it is only when you look back and remember and reflect on the past, that you can look forward and know what you need to work towards in the future. And remembrance really means something when it looks not only back to the past, but spurs us on into the future to continue to work for the peace for which those we remember today died.
Which brings me back to the poppy. There is a famous poem called In Flanders Field by Major, later Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae of the Canadian Army, a surgeon attached to the 1st Field Artillery Brigade. It begins:
In Flanders Field the poppies blow
between the crosses, row on row
that mark our place…
It gave rise to the association of poppies with those who had died and to the custom of wearing poppies for Remembrance. He wrote it in the spring of 1915 after the terrible battle at Ypres. He had just buried a friend, Lieutenant Alex Helmer, who had been killed by a shell. He had carried out the burial service himself since there was no chaplain available. Poppies were growing in the ditches around the cemetery and were blowing in the gentle east wind as McCrae wrote the poem. In fact, McCrae actually threw the poem away, but luckily it was rescued by a fellow officer and sent to Punch magazine which published it the same year. McCrae himself died in 1918.
The poem finishes with a call not to break faith with those who have died.
To you, from failing hands, we throw
the torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
we shall not sleep, though poppies grow
in Flanders Field.
We keep faith with those who died by continuing to commit ourselves to working for peace and justice and reconciliation in our world and in our nation and in our community – those ideals for which so many have fought and died. And for which God gave his Son to die upon a cross.
What I said a week last Sunday – Holy Cross Day
Following three weeks away on annual leave, I’m finally catching up with everything that piled up during my time away. Apoologies for this being somewhat late, but here is my sermon for a week last Sunday. We kept the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which is actually the 14th September. We held it a day late.
“I’ll give you something to believe”, said the White Queen to Alice, “I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day.”
“I can’t believe that!! Said Alice.
“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I dare say you haven’t had much practise,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Continue reading
In Christ Alone
Stuart Townend sings the worship hymn In Christ Alone.
The priest I live with, Mother Anne-Marie, used this hymn as the basis of her Good Friday talks. You can read them here:
Good Friday 6/6 – Sermon from the Good Friday Liturgy
This year on Good Friday, the priest I live with, Mother Anne-Marie, preached a series of sermons interspersed with prayer and silence on the hymn ‘In Christ Alone’. She concluded with this sermon at the Good Friday Liturgy.
During the two hours before this service we have been reflecting on the Stuart Townend and Keith Getty hymn “In Christ Alone” – in Christ alone my hope is found – so goes its first line.
Good Friday 5/6 – Here in the power of Christ I stand
This year on Good Friday, the priest I live with, Mother Anne-Marie, preached a series of sermons interspersed with prayer and silence on the hymn ‘In Christ Alone’ – here is number five.
Here in the power of Christ I stand Continue reading
Good Friday 4/6 – He stands in victory
This year on Good Friday, the priest I live with, Mother Anne-Marie, preached a series of sermons interspersed with prayer and silence on the hymn ‘In Christ Alone’ – here is number four.
He stands in victory Continue reading