Sermon by Fr. Joshua Bell SSC, Sunday 2nd May
Readings: Acts 9:26-31; 1 John 3:18-24; John 15:1-8
Have you ever met a long-lost relative? Or had a family member move far away?
My brother Joe moved to the United States sixteen years ago – he had met a young lady from Pennyslvania. She was volunteering at a church in France that my church at the time had a link to. We went to this church for a weekend in 2001. Rachel was leading the children’s work and my younger sister Nardia, who would have been seven at the time, introduced her as “my friend Rachel.” They hit it off, got on well, exchanged email addresses, and kept in touch – and three years later, they married.
Over the years Joe has made himself very much at home in America. His voice has changed and he’s picked up a bit of the accent. He’s started talking about strange things like sidewalks, tom-ay-toes, and aluminum. And a couple of years ago he finally got full American citizenship.
Joe and I don’t get to see each other very often because of the distance between us and the cost of flights: but we are still brothers. When we do see each other in person every few years, we both have to adjust a bit, to the other’s way of thinking, mannerisms, get used to the changes that time has wrought on us. But we still have a great time together.
The first time St. Paul came to Jerusalem after his conversion, he must have felt a bit like my brother. He must have struggled to fit in. And it’s not surprising. The last time the Christians in Jersualem saw St. Paul would probably have been the time that he held the coats for the men who stoned St. Stephen to death. To see him now, as one of them, well it must have been difficult to believe him, to trust him – and even when they did trust that he was genuine, it must have been difficult to get used to this persecutor being their brother in Christ. But we hear that they did, and over the years St. Paul becomes an integral part of the young Church.
In our Gospel Jesus talks a lot about belonging. He tells us to make our home in him, to be part of him, as branches are part of a single vine.
This metaphor Jesus uses is so striking, because it tells us everything we need to know about being a Christian. To be a Christian, to be a branch on this vine, we must be rooted in Christ. We must be part of him, and allow him to guide and direct our growth. Otherwise, we’ll be like a stick you find on the ground – cut off from its tree, and unable to grow or even survive – good only for firewood.
But if we remain in him, then we grow, we produce fruit, we become healthier, stronger, and even more fruitful with pruning.
One of the wonderful things about the Church, I think, is its diversity. It spans Christians of every age, every race, every skin colour, every socio-economic background. Like Joe and myself, we inhabit different cultures, speak different languages, but we are all sons and daughters of the same Father. We are all branches on the same vine.
That was the bond that united St. Paul with the disciples in Jerusalem. That is the one bond that matters above every other bond: political affiliation, National Trust membership, whatever – no other bond can bind as closely as the bond between Christians.
They say blood is thicker than water, but the water of the font is thicker even than the blood of the family. Families can fall apart, parents can separate – but as long as we remain united to Christ, as long as our home remains in him, then nothing can ever separate us.
I am divine, says the Lord; you are dibranches.
Sermon by Fr. Joshua Bell SSC, Sunday 25th April
Readings: Acts 4:8-12; Psalm 118:1,8-9,21-23,26,28-29; 1 John 3:1-2; John 10:11-18
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Amen.
What’s the most extraordinary, fancy, memorable thing you have ever been given? Perhaps it was a wedding or engagement ring, something that shines and sparkles?
The true test of a gift, of course, isn’t the way it looks, or the price tag, or anything like that – a gift, a true gift, is symbolic of the love that inspires its giving.
The most memorable gifts, the ones that mean the most to us, are often the ones which display this love.
And love is at the heart of our readings today.
I love the way St. John talks about God’s love in the second reading. Think of the love, he says, think of the love God has LAVISHED on us by letting us be called God’s children.
It takes a lot for something to be called lavish. To me, it speaks of something that is way more than you’d expect. A fancy meal might be three courses, but a lavish meal…that’s eight courses, of the finest food you can imagine, with a different bottle of wine for each course, silver service, crystal wine glass. Something so amazingly beyond your expectations that it’s…mind blowing.
Think what it means to be called a child of God.
It means that God made the whole universe, he made the galaxies, the horsehead nebula and all the other wonders of creation; he made the world, the vastness of the sea and the beauty of the earth, he made humankind in his own image – and he caused us to discover music, literature. Beethoven’s symphonies, the poetry of Shakespeare, the deliciousness of your favourite food…and then he decided that the world needed one of you. And then he didn’t just create you to be a “thing” in his world, but he loved you as his son, as his daughter. It means that your life isn’t an accident, a fluke, it’s the result of God’s love.
And it’s that same love that sustains us day by day, and which in the book of Acts caused the crippled man to be healed. We heard the first part of this wonderful story at Mass in the week of Easter – Peter and John are going up to the temple to pray, when a paralysed man asks them for money. Peter gives that wonderful response, “Silver and gold have I none – but in the name of Jesus Christ, get up and walk!”
The man was begging, and he hoped to get some coins from them to keep himself fed that day, to keep himself alive. What he gets is more than he can possibly imagine – it’s an outpouring of God’s lavish love.
And what about the gospel? That passage dripping in images of God’s love. Jesus is the good shepherd – the shepherd who cares for his sheep so much that he dies for them.
I was moved a month or so ago by a photo from Myanmar, where of course those horrible scenes of violence have been taking place after the coup there. The crackdown on protests has been dreadful.
As the heavily armed police moved in to stop the protest, Sister Ann Rose Nu Tawng knelt down in front of them, her arms spread in the shape of a cross, and begged the police to spare the protesters and to take her life instead.
It’s much like the story of St. Maximilian Kolbe, who took the place of a man due to be executed in Auschwitz. Both of these followers of Jesus were following his example, the example of the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep.
How deep the Father’s love for us!
How vast beyond all measure!
That he should give his only Son
to make a wretch his treasure!
God’s love isn’t transactional – it’s not given in return for our obedience and faithfulness – after all, Christ dies for us while we were still rebelling against him. But it’s a love so powerful that it urges us to respond to it – to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbour, as God has loved us.
Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, for his love has no end.
Sermon by Canon Adrian Ling CMP, Sunday 18th April
Readings: Acts 3:13-15,17-19; 1 John 2:1-5; Luke 24:35-48
In the series The Essay on Radio 3 a couple of weeks ago, the historian Diarmaid McCulloch reflected on his love of church-crawling, which he defines as like a pub crawl but without the beer and with churches instead of pubs. In one foray, into East Anglia in between lockdowns, he managed to visit some 35 churches in 36 hours. There was an air of reminiscence as he visited churches last seen when he was a teenager; among them were remote Illington in Norfolk and Wetherden in Suffolk where his father had been Rector. He reflected on how these return visits can help place the passage of one’s life in perspective. One cannot help but compare one’s situation now with how it was some twenty, thirty or forty years ago.
It is sometimes only in retrospect that we can make sense of the events of life, that we can see how far we have progressed, regressed or remained stationary.
That was certainly the case for the disciples of Christ, especially after the eventful last days of Jesus in Jerusalem. It had all been too tumultuous for them to make sense of it.
The risen Christ points to the scriptures to help them understand it, just as he had done with two disciples on the road to Emmaus when their hearts burned within them as he explained the scriptures to them. He teaches them how the scriptures have all been pointing to the suffering and death of the Messiah, but also to his resurrection. Looking back over their time with Jesus, they now understand what his teaching meant and they preached about it and recorded it in the gospels.
The risen Christ shows them the tragic inevitability of his passion and death. In the Acts of the Apostles St Peter does not hold back when he lays the blame for the death of Jesus on the people and their leaders. But he does not condemn them for it, because they did not really know what they were doing, as Jesus had said on the cross when he asked that they be forgiven by God. However they could not carry on pursuing this hate-filled course of killing those whom God sent to bring them his message of love and mercy to all; they had to repent.
We have passed through an intense time that we cannot yet properly comprehend. As we now start to do more things, we are reminded of what we have been missing. We will perhaps wonder when we were last in a certain place and what is the difference in us now compared to then; how have we changed?
As we begin to return to some sense of normality, we should not underestimate what we have passed through. We will not all be able to just switch back straight away. Even if we have not lost anyone personally, there are aspects of bereavement about our collective experience. We have lived through over a year of deprivation and loss. And as with any time of loss there is bereavement and grief, and this may be trapped or suppressed, but it may manifest itself without warning.
And so it remains important that we treat one another kindly and tenderly. For we may not know what toll this experience has taken on ourselves and on others. In the course of time, looking back, we will be better able to understand our experience.
The pandemic has made church-crawling rather difficult, as churches have become fortresses with ‘keep out’ signs on the porch, as it were. I visited one church in Yorkshire while on holiday in September, where the vicar padlocked himself in lest I have the temerity to try to visit the church. However the smaller, little used churches that Diarmaid McCulloch extolled are more likely to be open now, ( the ruined ones are an even safer bet) and they are tranquil places, conducive to prayerful reflection; and we are blessed in Norfolk with an abundance of them. Our ancient churches are a reminder of the continuum of history. Alan Bennett in The History boys wrote that ‘History is just one ******* thing after another.’ Our churches are places that have weathered centuries of history, and that history has left its traces like patina on brass. It can be exciting and reassuring to be in a place which has been a silent witness to all that, and still be there, able to hold us and our present preoccupations and help us to see that, as the comedian Kenneth Williams wrote in his diary, “our troubles are only scratches on the great periphery of cosmology.”
When in the midst of troubles it can all seem so intense, impenetrable and insoluble. It can create a maelstrom that churns away preventing us from making make sense of it all, but if we put ourselves in a position to admit the risen Christ through prayer, he can give us his peace, that peace which the world cannot give, that peace which passes all understanding. By looking back in his blessed company he broadens our vision and enlightens our understanding.
Sermon by Canon Adrian Ling CMP, Sunday 11th April
Gospel: John 20:19-31
The Duke of Edinburgh may well be remembered as one of those people who we did not appreciate until after their death. In these last few days we have been reminded of his steadfast qualities: how he was ‘the strength and stay’ of the Queen; his sense of duty and public service was as rock-solid as that of the Queen; he had a progressive outlook helping to modernize the monarchy and make it move with the times; he was an early champion of conservation and the protection of endangered species; and he did so much to inspire the aspirations of young people through his award scheme.
His approach was no-nonsense, and his speech direct which was at times challenging. When asked by a journalist if he was disappointed by the behaviour of some of his children, he replied, ‘what did you expect us to do, strangle them at birth? However his humorous light touches could also help to put people at ease.
We should, I think, be thankful for people who speak their mind, who ask the awkward questions that others dare not ask, people who refuse to be drawn into ‘groupthink.’ In that, the duke had something in common with St Thomas who, absent from the upper room when the risen Lord appeared to the other apostles, refused to be drawn into what must have seemed like hysteria, saying ‘unless I see the holes in his hands and put my finger in the wound in his side I refused to believe.’ He wanted proof. Earlier in St John’s gospel Jesus had told his disciples that he was going to prepare a place for them and that they knew the way to the place where he was going. They must all have been baffled by this statement but it was Thomas who spoke up with the obvious question, ‘Lord we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’
The Duke of Edinburgh, frequently got into trouble because of his humorous quips, which were misinterpreted. When he told an English chap in Hungary, ‘don’t stay too long or you’ll get a pot belly’, the media took it to mean he was saying that Hungarians were fat, but what he was actually referring to was the lavish hospitality with great quantities of food that had been provided during the state visit. The media does like to manufacture controversy, to stir up more public interest. However fear of what the press might write did not silence the duke.
We are renowned as a nation for our ironic sense of humour. Satire plays a role in cutting the important down to size, and giving us an alternative perspective helping us to see things as they really are.
Freedom of speech in this country, and around the world is being curtailed, where we have the ‘cancel culture’ imposed on writers like JK Rowling because their views offend a certain group. Was it racist of the Duke to say to the president of Nigeria wearing traditional dress, ‘you look like you’re ready for bed.’? The man in question certainly didn’t think so, he found it highly amusing. A public figure would not get away with that now, it would be a resigning matter.
The question of Thomas, ‘how can we know the way?’ prompted Jesus to say, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’
Jesus himself spoke directly and uncompromisingly. The Letter to the Hebrews states that “ the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” The truth is obscured if we are all over-careful about what we say, if we only say what we think we are supposed to say. The risen Lord leads us into the fullness of truth through the Holy Spirit. For, as St John tells us, ‘The Spirit is the truth.’ And we must speak the truth in love.
Jesus declared to Thomas, ‘how blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.’ Prince Philip, like the Queen, was a man of steadfast faith and was also well-versed in theology. He has fought the good fight, he has run the long race set before him. Let us give thanks for his life of service to this country and the Queen. May he now receive his eternal reward.
Sermon by Fr. Joshua Bell SSC, Sunday 4th April
Readings: Acts 10:34,37-43; 1 Corinthians 5:6-8; John 20:1-18
Happy Easter! It’s such a joy to say that today, this year, after a long forty days of Lent, and an even longer spiritual Lent – part of me has felt like it’s still Lent last year.
I think there’s a strange symbolism over the past year. Lent last year was the time that Coronavirus’s grip on our planet really began to take hold, and so of course our Easter celebrations were all held in our homes, on our screens, instead of being together like we are today.
In the first weeks of the first lockdown, I remember watching on TV as the Pope led the world in prayer: not accompanied by the usual crowds in Rome, instead he led prayer from St. Peter’s Basilica, almost entirely empty, before taking the Blessed Sacrament into a deserted St. Peter’s Square, dark and rainy, and offering Christ’s blessing to the whole world. It was a promise: God will not leave us.
Mary Magdalene is one person who prayed that Jesus would not leave her. Mary, we heard on Monday, is somebody who has much to be grateful for, to be thankful for – and her gratitude is matched by her love for him. She is one of the three people who stay with Jesus through the crucifixion; she goes in secret – as early as 3AM – to anoint his body, since there had not been time to do so before his burial.
And when she find the stone rolled away, she assumes the worst – that it has been taken away – and it is a heartbreak for her – it is as though she has lost him all over again.
So I think it is fitting that she, Mary, is the one who first witnesses the truth of the resurrection. On Tuesday we hear how Mary is the first person to see Jesus after the resurrection, and here she is the first to see the empty tomb. She who cast her whole self on Jesus is rewarded with this privilege.
In the empty tomb, we can see the whole defeat of sin and death that takes place in this Triduum – on these three Great Days, the old order has passed away, giving way to the eternal life brought by the death of Jesus.
Last year, in Lent, our first lockdown began. I think that there is a poetic quality to the hope that, if all continues to go well, this Eastertide will mark the lifting of many of the restrictions on our daily life – just as Jesus has freed us from sin and death, so too, I hope, we will be freed from this pandemic.
Of course, amidst the cost to our liberties and enjoyment of life, which we have all shared, there has, of course, been a great cost in the lives lost to Coronavirus.
This Thursday will be the first anniversary of the death of Maurice Kerrison, who many of us knew – and I would invite you to come to Mass on Thursday evening when we will offer the Holy Sacrifice for the repose of his soul. He died in Chester Hospital from Coronavirus last April. Maurice was a faithful Christian – he came to Mass when he was able, and before that, I was privileged to take him Holy Communion each month. He died on the Wednesday of Holy Week last year, and I think that he – who for so many years looked to Jesus – would have appreciated the date of his passing: as we waited for the sacrifice of Christ that reconciles us to the Father, Maurice received the fruits of that sacrifice as he went to the Father’s arms – and this year, we will pray for his soul in the new light of Easter.
Because the events of Easter remind us that amidst the tragic loss of life this past year, there is the promise, the assurance, of the resurrection: death does not have the last word; the grave will not remain full for ever; those who have died, and those who mourn, need not do so without hope.
Last night at the vigil we heard of the creation of Adam, our first parent. As in Adam, St. Paul says, all die; even so in Christ – the new Adam – shall all be made alive. Because of these three days: because of the death and resurrection of Jesus: the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised.
As St. John Paul II said: we are the Easter People, and Hallelujah is our song!
Sermon by Canon Adrian Ling CMP, Saturday 3rd April 2021
Gospel: Mark 16:1-8
Peck peck peck
on the warm brown egg
Out comes a neck
Out comes a leg
How does a chick
Who’s not been about
Discover the trick
Of how to get out?
Instinct is a wonderful thing. There they are in the dark until they bash the sides with their beaks and shatter the shell to emerge into the world. The chick bursting from the egg is a symbol of the risen Christ emerging from the tomb. Indeed now Easter is now more widely known for Easter eggs rather than the resurrection of Jesus.
In the gospel tonight, it as though we find an empty shell. We are with the 3 Marys who go to the tomb sometime before dawn and find it empty. Tonight we are at the sepulchre with the mysterious man in white, a messenger, an angel, who reassures them and tells them of the rising of Jesus. On Easter Day we will hear the report proved true as the risen Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene.
But tonight the empty tomb is our focus, cause of bewilderment and fear but also a sign of hope.
What we have experienced in the last 12 months has been like one long Lent and the last lockdown might also be compared to an entombment. For many the third lockdown has been the hardest, with the short winter days, and long hours of darkness and without the respite of a sunny garden.
But now we are beginning to emerge from this tomb. It is good timing that the easing of restrictions coincides with Easter, the time when hope is restored by the rising of Jesus.
Many people are as determined as the chick bursting from the egg to get out and about and be active once again. However for some of us it will be a more difficult prospect, because we are nervous and afraid, because we have lost our confidence, we have got out of the habit of socialising, we may have grown indolent. Misanthropes and curmudgeons will have quite enjoyed the time of solitude and be reluctant to have to interact with the rest of the human race once again.
Perhaps we will emerge from the lockdown sepulchre, slowly and cautiously. The past 12 months have shown the futility of making plans, only for them to be frustrated. Do we still have hopes and aspirations? Have we stored them up? One experience of the past 12 months is that it teaches us to do what we can while we have the opportunity, because we never know how long it will last. Now is the time to renew our hopes and priorities. Our initial aspirations may just be small ones: a coffee with a friend; a visit from family or friends; a pint in the pub, a haircut even.
The messenger instructs the women to tell Peter and the disciples to search for Jesus in Galilee the place of life, not to look for him in the place of his death. At the empty tomb we begin to celebrate the great renaissance, the renewal of life. Let us give thanks for this restoration of hope. Taking the risen Jesus as our inspiration, let us help each other out of our entombment. We need not be afraid. Let us learn once again to celebrate, be joyful and love life.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Sermon by Canon Adrian Ling CMP, 2nd April 2021
Readings: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Hebrews 4:14-16,5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42
In the Cathedral of Jaén in Andalucia, Spain, in times past they used to cover the whole of the great reredos, the altar piece, which filled the east wall, with a great piece of material. And during the Good Friday Liturgy it was rent in twain. How they managed it, I do not know, but it must have been a chilling sound as it reverberated round the vaults of the cathedral.
The act recreated the tearing of the temple veil from top to bottom as recorded by Matthew, Mark and Luke at the death of Jesus. The veil covered the entrance to the Holy of Holies at the heart of the temple. Only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies just once year on the Day of Atonement when, dressed in plain white linen garments, he would offer incense and sprinkle the blood of a sacrificed goat to atone for the sins of the people.
The Letter to the Hebrews describes how Jesus has entered the Holy of Holies. The rending of the veil at the death of Jesus removes the need for this act of annual atonement because Jesus has offered himself in sacrifice once and for all upon the cross. As High Priest he offers the sacrifice, as the spotless lamb of God, he is the sacrifice.
And the writer says that because of this ultimate act of atonement we can enter with confidence into the inner presence of God in the blood of Jesus. Jesus has gone through the heavens, so we can ‘approach the throne of grace with confidence and receive mercy and grace to help us in our time of need.’
Whereas the high priests of old could be weak and fallible men, though Jesus was tempted he remained without sin; by taking our human nature, he could sympathise with us in our weakness. He knew fear and asked that the cup of suffering be taken from him, but through his suffering he learned obedience. St Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, described how suffering can produce perseverance which strengthens character and gives rise to hope. Hebrews reminds us that following Jesus means being obedient to God: as we recognise our debilities, our pride is punctured and deflated and we realise our dependence on the grace of God. Whoever would be Christ’s disciple must take up their cross and follow him. Through emulating our master in our suffering we too learn obedience.
The Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, a catastrophe for the Jewish people. The Day of Atonement remains the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, however atonement is now to be carried out in the temple of the heart of every believer. It is a day of fasting and prayer that concludes at nightfall with the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn, and the exclamation, ‘Next year in Jerusalem!’
Although Jesus atoned for our sins, sin has not been eradicated. The prevalence of sin, evident in the damage it causes, continues to be unearthed: the tragedy of the murder of Sarah Everard revealed how women continue to be subjected to sexual harassment; we heard this week of a rape culture in secondary schools; the church has been shaken to its foundations by cases of abuse which it subsequently tried to conceal. All such revelations are unpleasant and disturbing and shatter our complacency that these sorts of things surely do not happen in a fine country like ours. In this inter-connected age we are aware of these happenings, and yet unless they occur to us, or to people connected to us, they may wash over us. We live cocooned lives and can easily tend to think that other people’s lives are just the same as ours.
Yet Jesus knows human suffering from the inside. When we look at the crucifix, we look at one who knows us, and what it is to suffer. The rending of the temple removes the barrier between God and man. When God appeared to Moses at Mount Sinai the people were petrified and pleaded with him to speak with God on their behalf. ‘Do not have God speak to us, or we will die,’ they said. The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.
Through the death of Jesus and the rending of the temple veil, we are brought close to God. Through Jesus, our High Priest, we can confidently yet humbly approach the throne of grace, we need not be afraid.
No more veil! God bids me enter
By the new and living way.
Not in trembling hope I venture;
Boldly I His call obey.
There with Him, my God I meet--
God upon the mercy seat!
In the robes of spotless whiteness,
With the blood of priceless worth,
He has gone into that brightness,
Christ rejected from the earth–
Christ accepted there on high,
And in Him do I draw nigh.
Frances Emma Bevan
Sermon by Fr. Joshua Bell SSC, Thursday 1st April 2021
Readings: Exodus 12:1-8,11-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-15
We have come to Maundy Thursday. It is the first of the three Great Days of the Triduum – and to my mind it is the strangest of the three.
Our mass begins so joyfully: the priests in white vestments – the colour of joyful celebration. Not only has the Gloria returned, it’s been accompanied by bells!
This joy mirrors the joy that Jesus and the disciples would have felt – that all the Jews would have felt – that night, as they celebrated the Passover together.
Modern-day Jews, when they celebrate the Passover, ask the question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” And, indeed, we too could ask the question, because this mass is unlike any mass in the year; because, of course, for the disciples, that Passover was different from all other Passovers they had marked before.
During dinner, we hear how Jesus washed the disciples’ feet – a task that would be given usually to a servant, or in their absence, the lowest of the people there. For Jesus to take it on is a subversive act – but entirely in keeping with Jesus’s kingship – the one who comes not to be served but to serve. He has taught, during his ministry, that whoever would be king must become the least of all – and what better example than to wash the disciples’ feet?
We hear the discomfort of Peter who initially refuses to let Jesus wash his feet; and we may recognise in his words some of our own discomfort, at the thought of baring our feet for Father Adrian or another priest to wash in years past. But Jesus does this for an example: and whether we are physically washing others or no – we all must learn the humility of Jesus, we all must make ourselves the servant of others – especially those we would be minded otherwise to look down on.
The second strange thing Jesus did on Maundy Thursday may seem familiar to us but for the disciples it was wholly new: he instituted the Eucharist, in the words we heard in the second reading. He took one of the unleavened loaves, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “This is my body – do this as a memorial of me.” He took the cup of wine, and told them to drink it as the cup of the new covenant – in his blood. The Jews lived by the covenant of Moses – but Jesus institutes a new covenant, a new Testament, with himself as the sacrificial lamb – whose blood seals the covenant. When we celebrate the Mass, we re-present this sacrifice, made once for all, we experience it as newly as if we were in that upper room.
And then, after the meal was complete, the disciples went with Jesus to the garden of Gethsemane – just as we accompany Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament to the altar of repose – and with the disciples, we watch and pray for an hour. But this night, which began with such joy, such celebration, such mysterious wonder and wonderful mystery – ends in the shock of Judas’s betrayal.
Jesus is arrested and taken away. His disciples scatter – and in union with them, we leave, we flee, the altar of repose. There is no final blessing at this Mass. No dismissal. Instead, as we hear the arrest of Jesus, we scatter – we leave. To signify the horror of Jesus’s arrest, we strip the church of much of its furnishings. We have already veiled the images in the church, but now even the fabrics, the frontals, the linens, will be taken away. THe candles removed from the altar – which goes from being ornately decorated to being bare, naked, empty.
There will be no end – no closure – not yet. We, with the disciples, must wait, through tomorrow and Saturday, until we mark the unlooked-for joy of the resurrection. But not yet.
Tonight we have celebrated the rescuing of God’s people from slavery in Egypt. We have received his new commandment, to love one another with the same self-giving, self-effacing love, that he has shown to us in the washing of the feet. We have heard how he instituted the Eucharist and in the preface to the Mass, we will praise God for this most sacred of meals. We will go with him to Gethsemane to watch, and pray, with him. And with his disciples, we will depart, forlorn, dumbstruck, as we flee the place of his arrest.
Why is this night different from all other nights? Because on this night Jesus gave his final, most powerful, teachings to the disciples before the drama of his trial, death, and burial began.
Sermon by Fr. Joshua Bell SSC, Sunday 21st March 2021
Gospel: John 12:20-33
There’s an old joke about two friends watching a cowboy film, and one friend says to the other, “I bet that character dies in the end.” And sure enough he does.
At the end of the film the friend turns and says, “About that bet – I have to confess, I’ve seen this film before.”
“So have I,” says the other friend, “but I thought he’d have better luck this time!”
In the same way, we might be forgiven for finding ourselves hearing the Gospel narratives leading up to Jesus’s arrest and crucifixion with a sense of foreboding – willing the story to turn out differently, for Jesus to “get away.”
As human beings, I think that we hate the idea of inevitability. We want things to turn out differently to what we know is the established pattern.
In the second half of the last century there was at attempt by liberal theologians to recast the events of Easter. According to their new narrative, Jesus’s death wasn’t inevitable; it wasn’t the supernatural climax of the son of God’s time on earth.
Rather, they said, Jesus was someone who was inspired to preach a better way of living; to try and create heaven on earth; and the authorities were so dismayed by his attempts that they killed him for it.
But this idea of a purely human sacrifice, on the altar of greed and power and all the other human ills, fails to take account of Jesus’s own words.
“When I am lifted up from the earth,” he says, “I will draw all men to me.”
When I am lifted up – the language here is a kind of irony: he uses the language of glorifying and elevation, but the lifting up that we see, that he is foretelling, is his lifting up on the cross of Calvary. And he does not draw all men towards an earthly paradise but to himself – with all the pain and joy that comes with following him.
Jesus’s death is not the sad end to the story of a miracle working teacher of kindness to others, but the very reason that he came to the earth in the first place. “What shall I say? Save me from this hour? But it was for this very reason that I have come to this hour.”
Passion Sunday marks the shift of our Lenten pilgrimage from the desert to the Cross. It is a reminder to us of Jesus’s words: if anyone wants to be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For a month now we have denied ourselves with Jesus in the desert. Now we begin to unite ourselves, if only spiritually, with Jesus in his soffering and death.
Of course, many people have, over the centuries, united themselves wholly in the death of Jesus, either through the shedding of their blood or through the rigours of the monastic life, the so-called white martyrdom. The ancient Christian writer Tertullian wrote that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, and it’s easy to hear an echo of Jesus’s own words from our Gospel – that unless a grain of wheat falls and dies it remains only a single grain, but that if it dies it spreads its seeds and yields a rich harvest.
And this has been true of the many martyrs – red and white – who, in dying to the world, have spread the good news of Jesus far and wide. I often think of Papua New Guinea, in the Pacific Ocean north of Australia. The Bishops of Lynn have, for a long time, been responsible for the Church of England’s link with the Church in Papua New Guinea, a country whose rich Christian heritage owes much to the many who have lost their lives for their faith.
Of course, the last year of lockdowns has felt like one long Lent, and for all too many people, it has brought a personal Good Friday, as people have lost those they loved. I don’t wish to suggest that the 126,000 deaths in the UK are anything other than a tragedy; but Passiontide is a reminder that in every stage of life, Jesus is with us. He has known the death of those he loved – when he stood at Lazarus’s tomb, the Bible tells us, “Jesus wept” – and he has known death itself.
Just as we unite ourselves to his suffering in Passiontide, he has already united himself to all the suffering we have endured this past year, and he will always be united to us, in whatever storms or calms of life we may face in the future.
Sermon by Canon Adrian Ling CMP, Sunday 14th March 2021
Reading: Ephesians 2:4-10
Every day I phone my mother. And this week one topic of conversation has dominated our conversation: the interviewof Oprah Winfrey with Meghan and Harry. My mother is definitely not ‘Team Meghan’, especially now that her beloved Piers Morgan has left Good Morning Britain. Her cleaner had the temerity to defend Meghan saying that she felt sorry for her because she was clearly upset during the interview, and on the verge of tears. ‘She’s an actress!’ my mother declared without compunction.
It is said that you should not wash your dirty linen in public. Shaming your family publicly is not a good way to help repair a broken relationship. We might ask what were the motives behind the making of this programme? Was it done out of love? Or was it an act of revenge? It was billed as ‘Meghan telling her truth’, not ‘the truth’ but ‘her truth’. Is that the same as the ‘alternative facts’ that the Trump team used to refer to?
The hurt and damage caused by this interview will be difficult to overcome. One cannot help but be reminded of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and how the royal family, and especially the Queen Mother, were unable to contemplate the presence of the Duchess of Windsor at royal occasions, because of the hurt they had caused.
In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus talks about the motivation of God who gave his only son because he so loved the world, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life. That is the foundation of the gospel, the supreme act of unconditional act of love of God the Father for the entire human race. Despite all the failed warnings of the prophets in guiding the people of Israel along God’s way, something more had to be done.
God could have sent his son in judgement, to condemn the failings of mankind. But he was not driven by a motivation to condemn the world, but to redeem it. Jesus said he had not come to condemn the world. He did condemn some, who should have known better, the hypocrites and blind guides among the religious leadership. And he did so knowing the consequences. ‘Judge and you will be judged,’ he had said, ‘condemn and you will be condemned.’ And he was: condemned to death on the cross.
Was the interview an act of condemnation, achieved by allusion, leading the interviewer and the viewers to the crushing conclusion that the royal family is racist? The Sussexes too have now exposed themselves to judgement; their actions will be praised by some but condemned by others.
The royal family has its problems and tensions like any family, and it is the cross they have to bear that the public considers it its business to know about them. But how do our family and personal relationships bear up by comparison? What are the motives behind our treatment of one another?
Our problems will not be broadcast on the news, however if we publicly criticise and condemn other people then we are putting them in the pillory, and we should be mindful of the damage and hurt we may be inflicting on them. There are some actions which can irreparably damage our relationships.
Love was the motivation for God to give Jesus Christ to the world. And we should repeatedly check our motives, and ask ourselves why we do what we are do to other people. We should ask ourselves whether our deeds are done out of love or for less wholesome reasons. Are we building up in love or tearing down in hate?
St Paul says that we ‘are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to live the good life as from the beginning he had meant us to live it.’ This work of art is a product of the grace of God. It is the overflowing grace of God at work in us that makes us God’s work of art, that can help us to do beautiful things, in spite of ourselves and our base human emotions.
To let that grace work in us, we must be merciful as he is merciful, and not merciless. To be merciful is to be generous. Mercy is given not because the other deserves it, it is given even though they don’t because it is motivated by love, by the love that flows through the perfect grace of God.
On this Mothering Sunday let us pray for healing and reconciliation in the royal family and wherever there is discord, even in our own families and relationships
And in the light of that interview let us be mindful of the fine Norfolk saying: ‘if you’ve got nothing good to say about other people, say nothing.’