Sermon by Fr. Joshua Bell SSC, 25th October 2020
Readings: Exodus 22:20-26; 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10; Matthew 22:34-40
When I was at school, I spent six years studying German: first to GCSE and then to A-Level. I really enjoy learning languages, but the one thing I could get the hang of was the grammar! All the words for “the” and all the pronouns and so forth – is it dem or der, die or das?
And the Jewish law was a lot like this. When we think about the Jewish law we think of the Ten Commandments but these are just the tip of the iceberg – the full Jewish law contained 613 mitzvot, or commands.
All of these commands were binding on Jews, so when the Pharisees asked Jesus to tell them which of these laws was most important, it was a trick question to trip him up.
But the one who is the Word made Flesh knew the written word of God intimately – and so he tells us that the whole law hung on the commands to love God and to love our neighbour.
The first command is taken from Deuteronomy 6, verses 4 and 5, and they form part of the Jewish daily prayer – so this command was the greatest not only because it had the most overreaching application but because it would have been so well known.
The second command comes from the Book of Leviticus.
Pope Francis called these two commands a grammar: when speaking to a group of Evangelicals in 2016 he said that he would speak the language of the heart – a language with only two rules in its grammar.
These two rules are the basis not only of the Jewish law but of everything that we believe and hold to in Christianity.
They are simple…but they are demanding.
What does it mean for us to really love God? What does it mean to really love our neighbour as ourself?
To continue the theme of grammar: love is not a noun – something we fall into, and something we can fall out of. Love is a verb – it’s something we do. Love shows itself in works.
How do we demonstrate our love for God? By prayer, worship, study of his word – not just when it feels easy but when it feels difficult. Wearing masks makes worship harder, I know – but it is so crucial that we don’t give up on our worship together, coming to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.
And what about our love for our neighbour? When we come into the presence of God in the Blessed Sacrament, we demonstrate our love for him by genuflecting or bowing towards the tabernacle.
How do we demonstrate our love for our neighbour? It’s important to remember that when Jesus tells the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, his praise for the sheep and criticism for the goats is that whenever they did or didn’t show love for their neighbour by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and, visiting the sick and imprisoned: Jesus says, “In as much as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me; in as much as you didn’t do this to the least of these, you didn’t do it to me.”
There are two images which bring this home, to me certainly: one is an image of Jesus on the tube; and the other is the statue, which you might have seen as it travels around the country – the statue of the homeless Jesus.
In our first reading God tells the Jews not to oppress the foreigner living in their land, because they themselves had been strangers in Egypt. Jesus, too, spent time as a stranger in Egypt – he and the Holy Family fled there as refugees to escape from Herod. We are living in a time when a great many refugees are fleeing their homelands in search of safety.
Many people have called for the Royal Navy to be deployed to stop people trying to cross the English Channel. These are desperate people – nobody would risk their lives by leaving everything they have and crossing continents, pressed into lorries and crammed into tiny boats – nobody would do this if they had any other choice. Is it loving, to greet these people with the barrel of a warship’s cannon?
When asked “who is my neighbour?”, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, the person who showed care for someone he would be expected to despise. Let us love not only those who look like us, who speak like us, who act like us – but let us love even more those who are most vulnerable, those who are different from us, those who we find it hard to love – because love shows itself not in beliefs of the mind, or even in verbal expressions of love – but in action.
Sermon by Canon Adrian Ling CMP, 18th October 2020
Readings: Isaiah 45:1,4-6; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5; Matthew 22:15-21
Sermon by Canon Adrian Ling CMP, 11th October 2020
Readings: Isaiah 25:6-10; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:12-14,19-20; Matthew 22:1-14
Feasting is an important aspect of life in our churches. It is one thing we do very well, whether it be the All Saints Dinner at the Town Hall, the Harvest Supper, the Lent Lunches, our special lunches for Candlemas and Ascension Day or our Christmas Bar at St Peter’s. Holding these special events gave us a reason to issue invitations to people to. This was until March a very important aspect of parish life, and we hope to be able to return to it.
That aspect of parish life has had to be put on hold. At present we cannot even offer the most basic and cherished aspect of hospitality: coffee and biscuits after Mass. How difficult this is, as personal interaction is so important, especially for those of us who live alone; fellowship is a key part of church life.
We follow the example of Jesus, who is recorded many times in the gospels having meals with various people in different places. The Pharisees complained that his disciples were always eating and drinking and that he ate with tax-collectors and sinners. Jesus did so deliberately because to share a meal with someone was a signal of his acceptance of them.
During my eighteen years in ministry, I have been continually thinking of ways to bring people together, to create community in increasingly individualistic times. As one lady at Winterton used to say ‘Fr Adrian keeps coming up with ideas to drag us away from our television sets.’ It is frustrating not to be able to think like this, to be pro-active and creative in creating events for the immediate future.
However we must be thankful that we are still able to gather at the altar, the eucharistic table. That invitation can still be given out and taken up; the invitation of the Lord to come unto him all who are over-burdened and heavy-laden.
Some of our restrictions have brought advantages. The Diocesan Synod currently meets via Zoom. Instead of 100 vehicles guzzling fuel to drive across Norfolk for a meeting, we all stayed at home. These virtual meetings are increasingly used, along with other aspects of home-working. There has been some comment about how we should approach them, and complaints about people attending formal meetings in pyjamas or scruffy clothes. The way we dress and present ourselves says much about how we regard the person we are meeting whether virtually or in person. It is good to keep up standards. It proves that we still value and respect the other person and that what we are doing with them is important.
The man at the end of the parable who got the dress code wrong and was thrown out of the banquet might seem to have been harshly treated; having been brought in at the last minute, how could he have had a chance to change? Some scholars suggest that we should treat these as two parables that have been joined together over time. This man has disrespected his host, by not bothering to dress appropriately for an important occasion.
I heard recently about a special occasion where three generations of a church-going family were celebrating significant wedding anniversaries, among them the grandparents celebrating their diamond wedding. Three ministers from the team each gave a couple a blessing but the oldest couple were mortified to see their minister dressed in a shorts and a t-shirt with a stole flung over it. It showed them how much their church had changed, and not for the better. Their relationship with that church was never the same.
We should take care over both our external and internal appearance. St Paul tells us to put on Christ, as we would a garment of clothing, to dress ourselves in him, that we may be smart on the outside and equally presentable on the inside. The outside and the inside should match. If we have really put on Christ then we are dressed properly and are ready for anything.
It is not easy in these times to be hospitable, and we must inevitably be prepared for more restrictions to return, I fear. It is always important that we do not just lament what we can’t do, but think about what opportunities we actually have. We can use this time to see how well we are dressed in Christ, and ask ourselves if there is more of him that we need to put on. We can continue to display his hospitality and valuing of others by reaching out to other people with care and concern.
In God’s economy nothing is wasted. One who realised this most especially was St John Henry Newman whose feast day we marked on Friday. He wrote: “I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.”
Sermon by Fr. Joshua Bell SSC, Sunday 4th October 2020
Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7; Philippians 4:6-9; Matthew 21:33-43
I said to Fr. Adrian on Tuesday, that since he had returned from holiday early to say Mass at St. Peter’s last Sunday, that I owed him a sermon – so I’d preach today. Besides, I said, I hadn’t yet preached a Harvest Festival since I’d been here. It would be good for me.
It was only then that I looked at the readings for today, and the idea of Harvest as an olde-worlde, twee tradition of the Church of England – something out of Lark Rise to Candleford or Call the Midwife – came crashing down around my ears.
Because today’s readings are serious warnings from God to his people, whom he portrays as a vineyard that produces sour grapes.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that we shall know people – and be known – by our fruit or theirs; he tells us that no good tree produces bad fruit, and no bad tree produces good fruit.
The sour grapes Isaiah refers to are symbols here for Israel’s unfaithfulness – throughout the Old Testament Israel had an on-off relationship with God, who longs for his people – as we hear in the Psalm, he drove out the nations to plant his vine in the Promised Land. But the Israelites used to flit between worshipping the one true God, and worshipping either idols of their own creation, like the Golden Calf, or the idols of the pagan countries around them.
As a result of this, and as a result of the way in which they had treated the poor of the country, who were “sold for a pair of sandals”, God allowed Israel and Judah to be invaded by the Assyrians and the Babylonians – the tearing down of the vineyard prophesied by Isaiah.
The Kingdom of God, too, is compared to a vineyard by Jesus, who tells the chief priests and elders of the people the parable we heard in the Gospel – how the tenants placed in charge of the vineyard not only failed to yield the produce, but abused and then killed first his servants, and then his own son – a symbol of how first the Old Testament Prophets, then John the Baptist, and Jesus himself were scorned by God’s people.
So, Jesus prophesies, the Kingdom of God will be given to a people who produce its fruit – and here we see a prefiguring of the Book of Acts, where after being rejected by most of the Jews, the Apostles preach with great success to the Gentiles of the places they travel to. Whether tended by Jews or Gentiles, the vineyard of God’s kingdom is tended by those who are faithful to him.
What unites the people of God, male and female, slave and free, Jew and Greek, is Christ himself – Christ, who calls himself the true vine. In St. John’s Gospel he says that we, the branches, cannot flourish unless we remain united to the vine.
Over the summer I’ve been growing tomatoes, and Jesus’s words in John 15 have resonated with me. Jesus says that our Father cuts off every branch that doesn’t produce fruit, but prunes each plant that does, so that it produces more. Leah and I have done plenty of cutting and pruning over the summer, and even though we know that it’s necessary – to conserve and channel the plant’s energy – it still feels like I’m doing violence to these plants.
We can feel this way, too, sometimes – we can feel as though we are suffering for no reason – only to look back on it later and realise that we have grown as a result – that we have produced more fruit. God the gardener tends us with care – and never wishes to cause us harm. Rather, he strengthens us and enables us to bear much fruit – so long as we abide in him.
So on this Harvest Sunday, let us give thanks for the fruit of the earth that feeds us; but let us give thanks even more for the fruit that springs up in each one of us – the fruits of the Holy Spirit. And let us give thanks, most of all, for the most nourishing food of all: the food of the Eucharist, the word made flesh, Jesus Christ, who gives us his body, to nourish us to eternal life.
Sermon by Fr. Joshua Bell SSC, Sunday 27th September 2020
Readings: Ezekiel 18:25-28; Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 21:28-32
A few years ago on Maundy Thursday I saw a news article about a bishop and some of his priests on their local high street, polishing people’s shoes. This, the Bishop explained, was a modern-day action comparable to the washing of the disciples’ feet by Jesus on the night of the Last Supper.
Jesus, when he washed the feet of his disciples, took on himself the work of a servant – washing feet after a day on dusty roads in sandals would have been a much grimier equivalent of what we would do today when guests arrived: taking their coats and hats, and so forth.
What we do on Maundy Thursday is a more sanitised version of that. When Father Adrian washes people’s feet – which of course he he wasn’t able to do this year – usually those who have been volunteered will have made sure that they’ve had a wash and put on fresh socks already; so in fact there’s not usually much dirt to wash off!
And similarly, when the Bishop is polishing peoples shoes, the discomfort of bending down over the shoes is outweighed, I expect, by the novelty of having our shoes polished. Because these things aren’t every day occurrences, we don’t, I think, truly grasped how much of a lowly job foot washing would have been.
But imagine that instead of polishing your shoes, the Bishop was going to clean your toilet, and that instead of him finding the bathroom already sparkling clean because you knew he was coming, imagine that he came on just an ordinary day.
This is the lowliness that Jesus embraced when, in the words of St. Paul, he emptied himself to become as all men are – he didn’t find a world greeting its king, like when Her Majesty opens a new, freshly painted hospital. He came as anybody else.
So what does it mean to have the same mind as Christ Jesus? How do we “consider the other person to be better than ourselves”?
Recently I was talking with some new Sea Cadets about the culture of our cadet unit, the way we would like atmosphere to be, and so forth. After discussing why we shouldn’t, for instance, be horrible to people, or kick them just because their uniform is scruffy, we agreed that all of this comes down to the golden rule, to do to others what we would want done to us.
Sometimes this approach is criticised, by people who point out that even when we do as we would want it done, people don’t always behave in the same way, having received kindness from us, they return it with unkindness. I don’t doubt the truth of this, and I’m sure many of us could think of times when we have extended the hand of friendship to a person, only for it to be rejected, or accepted and then misused.
When this happens it’s easy to become bitter, but this innocuous sounding sin is a deadly one. Bitterness is what happens when pride doesn’t get its own way. If I become bitter because I haven’t received what I think I deserve – even if I do deserve it! – Then can I truly be said to have emptied myself and become humble like Jesus?
Think of all the goodness imparted by Jesus to those around him: the sick he healed, the sins he for gave, the hungry he fed. What did he get in return? A crowd who mocks him, who called for his death. He received the way of the cross. But he accepted this humiliation gladly. His life, his dignity, was not taken away from him by anybody: he laid it down freely. There was no bitterness in Jesus as he walked the way of the cross to Calvary.
And so we, if we would seek to be like Jesus, must reject all bitterness. “Father, forgive them,” was the answer he gave to his mockers on Calvary. So we, too, must forgive those who hurt us.
A tall order, for all of us, I know! But at the end of this great obstacle course is the promise that “the last shall be first”. As a result of Jesus’s humility, we here in our parcel that God raised him high: he who went down to the depths was raised to the heights of heaven.
On the cross the sign over Jesus’s head said, “Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews”. A tool of mockery which was taken by God and made into the name above every name: Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe! This is the name which is above all other names so that all beings in the heavens, on Earth, and in the underworld should bend the knee at it.
We adore you, O Lord Jesus Christ, in this church and all the churches of the world, and we bless you, because by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world.
Sermon by Fr. Joshua Bell SSC, Sunday 20th September 2020
Readings: Isaiah 55:6-9; Philippians 1:20-24,27; Matthew 20:1-16
like to tell you a story about my family. My grandmother – my nan – became a Christian as an adult. Her husband didn’t approve of it, and would only grudgingly let her go to church. “God” was not to be talked about in the house.
This was a really hard thing for my nan, who had discovered this great joy that comes with knowing our Lord Jesus. With the zeal of many a convert, she wanted to talk about it all the time! But he was having none of it.
My nan was upset, of course – but she did as he instructed her. Partly this was because she was of a generation where husbands ruled the roost – but she also read in her Bible that she should submit to her husband, that she should be patient in prayer – and so the only time in that house that God was mentioned in front of my grandfather was once, when he swore after dropping something: my older brother, then only about five years old, said, “That’s not very Christian!”
In his last years, though, my grandfather, too, became a practicing Christian, and the name of God was once again used in his house. He died ten days after I was born, and I never met him, but he received the reward that was owed to him.
Stories like his are often called eleventh-hour conversions, and we get that idea from Jesus’s parable today.
On the one hand, the workers who are hired first seem to have a point. They’ve worked hard all day for a denarius – which is the standard wage for a day’s labour. It’s not that they’re being paid an unfair wage. But looking at the men who were hired last, and seeing them receive the same wage that they were promised, for almost no work – it feels unfair.
We have a maxim which I’m sure was the case in the time of Jesus: “An honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.” You earn your money – it isn’t just given to you.
And we can sometimes think this way about our religion, too.
What makes someone a “Good Christian” – what makes them deserve that title? We might think that they are someone who leads a good life. Who does the right thing – and who doesn’t do the wrong thing. Someone who comes to Mass each week and reads. Someone, dare I say, who always puts something in the plate!
But these aren’t qualifiers of a “Good Christian”. Christian values, as we sometimes call general decency, do not a Christian make – and someone can be a Christian whilst also being not very good at the “Christian values”. A Christian is someone who knows that they have faults, and who wants to face them. Even if they take two steps forward and one step back, even if they aren’t “respectable” – after all, look at the people Jesus spent most of his time with.
A Samaritan woman who had a bad name in her village. Incompetent fishermen. Two blokes with short tempers. And a tax collector – who was essentially the first century equivalent of a loan shark. Jesus said, “Those that are well have no need of a doctor – but the sick do. I came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
Now we might think that Jesus is having a dig at us – if we think that we’re generally doing quite well. But let’s not forget that we’re none of us perfect. If any perfect person came to Church I’d tell them there was nothing for them here. We start each Mass by confessing our sins, and at the altar we receive the Body and Blood of Christ. This is the denarius we are all given by the Master – whether we started work in the first hour or the eleventh, and whether we work our socks off or we’re a bit lazy and stand around not doing much – figuratively.
So, my dear friends, let us never think that we or anyone else isn’t “good enough” for God – if they desire his love, if we desire his love, then that is the only qualification needed. Everything else follows from that. I said just now that Jesus spent most of his time with people thought of as undesireables – but he didn’t leave them were they were. He restored them, he caused them to leave the ways of the past and walk in his future. Jesus turned water into wine. Think what he can do with us!
Sermon by Fr. Joshua Bell SSC, 13th September 2020
Readings: Ecclesiasticus 27:33-28:9; Romans 14:7-9; Matthew 18:21-35
In a strange twist of the lectionary, today’s sermon might seem to be a sequel to last week’s – following this theme of forgiveness that we’ve been hearing about the past few weeks. Have you ever gotten cross with someone, only to realise that you were guilty of the very same thing?
This happened to me only yesterday, when we were on the ride and stride. On our way to the Highgate Methodist Chapel, I got lost when some of our party knew a shortcut through the Morrisons car park – but I got stuck on the other side of the pedestrian crossing on Blackfriars Road, and by the time I got across they were out of sight! When we finally got reunited, I asked – a little tersely, I confess – to please stay in sight of each other. Well, sad to say, skip forward half an hour and we are zooming down the cycle path from Lynnsport towards the railway crossing on Tennyson Avenue – and I realise two of our party are out of sight – stuck with a problematic pedal! I had to apologise for the very same thing I had gotten cross about.
The parable in the Gospel today presents us with a challenge. The King – God – has a number of servants. And one of them owes a large sum of money.
Ten years ago an economist who is also a Christian looked at this parable and did some maths. I shan’t bore you with the details, but when I brought his maths up to date on minimum wages and so forth – and these are only estimates, not hard and fast exchange rates – but by my maths I can tell you that the ten thousand talents that the first man owed the king would be equivalent to twenty-nine billion, eight hundred and ninety-two million pounds – a quarter of the worth of Bill Gates, more than ten times the worth of Donald Trump, and twice the annual GDP of Slovenia.
The servant has no hope of paying this back – it’s the equivalent of two hundred thousand years of his current wage. Imagine the generosity that cancels that debt!
What debt do we owe to God? We all are guilty of something, no matter what it is. That’s why we begin our Mass by confessing that we have sinned, through our own fault, in our thoughts and in our words, in what we have done and in what we have failed to do.
The sins we confess – the sins we commit – these are our debt to God.
When we sin, we damage or break the relationship we have with god or with one another. If I tell a lie to a friend, it hurts them and strains our relationship. With enough severity it could break altogether. When we confess these sins, we acknowledge that we are in the wrong. We say sorry. We ask for forgiveness. And that forgiveness restores the relationship, whether it’s with God or with another person.
Forgiveness sets us free – whether we are forgiving or being forgiven. This is why the first reading tells us not to hold grudges, not to hold on to our anger. If we refuse to forgive someone, if we hold onto our resentment, it’s like a little bit of rot inside a pumpkin – you might not be able to see it straightaway, but it devours us nonetheless.
Let’s return to our parable. The second servant owes 100 denarii. That’s about four month’s wages, a little under five thousand pounds. Still quite a sum, but nowhere near what the man had had cancelled for him by the king.
So to relentlessly pursue this small amount when he has been forgiven shows quite a degree of selfishness.
The first reading asks, “If a man nurses anger against another, can he then demand compassion from the Lord?” and in the parable, the King says, “I cancelled all that debt of yours when you appealed to me. Were you not bound, then, to have pity on your fellow servant just as I had pity on you?”
Can we expect God to forgive us, if we won’t forgive other people?
And so this is why in the Lord’s prayer we say, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
We ask God to forgive us our sins. When we say “as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we aren’t justifying God’s forgiveness with ours. We aren’t saying, “Forgive us, because we are forgiving others.” The Lord’s prayer is a prayer where we ask God for the things that are important, and this is no exception. Forgiving people can be hard, and so we pray, in effect, for God to help us in the task of forgiveness.
Sermon by Fr. Joshua Bell SSC, 6th September 2020
Readings: Ezekiel 33:7-9, Romans 13:8-10, Matthew 18:15-20
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: Amen.
There is a little book I have at home which I was given a few years ago, called “No thanks, I’m 1662” full of cartoons around the giving of the peace. The title is from one figure in the book who clearly doesn’t relish the idea – and his response is, “No thanks: I’m 1662” – from the 1662 Prayer Book which omits the sign of peace.
Our friend might be happy with the current situation which means the shaking of hands isn’t permittable, but he would do well not to write off this part of the mass. Sometimes, the sharing of peace can turn into a babble where people not only shake hands but ask how each other are, and what the football score was, and in short the Mass can be sidetracked.
But at its heart is the commandment of Jesus: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Before we come to God’s altar to give our gift of adoration as we receive Communion, we turn to those around us and say, “Peace be with you.” We make sure we are right with other people.
And our readings today are about being reconciled to each other. Jesus tells us that if we are in a dispute with somebody, our response ought not to be to cause a fuss and drag everyone into it – but if we can, to solve it between the two of us. We can involve one or two others as witnesses if needs be, but only if this fails should we bring it to the attention of everyone.
While the BCP doesn’t include the sharing of the peace, as a time to be reconciled to each other, it does include this introduction to confession:
YE that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort; and make your humble confession to Almighty God.
St. Paul also tells us that all the commandments are summed up in the commandment to love our neighbour as ourself – a summary that Jesus, too, once made – when asked to say what the most important command was, in the law God gave to Israel. He said that the first is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and that the second was to love our neighbour as ourselves – and he said that all the law and prophets hang on these two commands.
Being in love and charity with our neighbours is crucial, especially for Christians. We are the Body of Christ, all cells making up one body. What does it mean if we are divided, if we are fallen out? What does it mean if some cells are opposed to other cells?
I was watching a course on marriage recently, and a question that the host suggested partners ask each other is, “Is there anything I need to ask your forgiveness for?
“Is there anything I need to be forgiven for?”
Sometimes we hurt other people without realising, and so this question can help us check in. Everyone has bickerings and fallings out with those they’re close to – it’s part of life. But fallen out shouldn’t be a default state of life – we must apologise to each other, and we must also forgive and be forgiven.
Of course, forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning what a person has done, neither does it mean allowing a person to continue causing harm. But we choose to live in such a way that this no longer defines us.
The psalm this morning tells us not to harden our hearts. A hard heart is like a wall that doesn’t let anyone in. Sometimes we harden our hearts to protect them – we think to ourselves, “If I keep my defences up, nobody will hurt me” – but all we do is hurt ourselves. We can’t let anyone in, whether to love us or to hurt us – but we also find that we can’t let any love out, either.
When we forgive someone, we soften our hearts. We let those defences down, and even if we don’t have anything to do with that person any more, it shows to ourselves that not everyone is like the person who hurt us. We can love our neighbour without fear.
So today, let us listen to the voice of the Lord, who says, “You must love your neighbour as yourself.” Let us not harden our hearts, but love each other with the same love that God shows us.
Sermon by Canon Adrian Ling CMP, 30th August 2020
Readings: Jeremiah 20:7-9; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27
In communist Poland, the government of Prime Minister Jaruzelski ordered crucifixes to be removed from all public buildings. The ban stirred waves of anger and resentment all across Poland and the bishops condemned it. Ultimately the government relented, and said that though the law must remain on the statute books, it would not press for removal of the crucifixes, particularly in schoolrooms.
But one zealous Communist school administrator in Garwolin decided that the law had to be followed and he removed seven large crucifixes from lecture halls where they had hung since the school had been built. A few days later, a group of parents entered the school and hung up more crosses. The administrator took them down as well.
Then two-thirds of the school's 600 students staged a sit-in. Heavily armed riot police arrived and evicted them. They then marched to a nearby church with the crucifixes held high and were joined by 2500 other students from nearby schools for a morning of prayer in support of the protest. Soldiers surrounded the church. However pictures from inside of students holding crosses high above their heads spread around the world; as did the words of the priest who declared: “without a cross, there is no Poland.”
Those students followed the instruction of Jesus literally: they took up their crosses. The bravery of protesters who stand up to oppressive regimes is impressive. They risk beating, imprisonment and torture in standing up for what they believe to be right. It takes a brave person to stand up to a dictator; the solidarity of a crowd can help stiffen resolve.
Jeremiah warned the people against idolatry and of the perils facing Jerusalem, and after its fall to Babylon he was forced into exile in Egypt where he continued to reproach his countrymen for their idolatry. Jeremiah expresses the dilemma that faces the prophet: to speak out or remain silent. The prophet who tells people what they do not want to hear will not win friends. Jeremiah was made miserable by derision and insult. He resolved to remain silent and say no more for the sake of an easy life, but when he decided not to think about God or speak in his name, he could not contain himself, he burned with the zeal of the Lord, and could not resist speaking out. Prophecy was the cross that Jeremiah had to bear. He had to be the spokesman of God. He tried to resist picking up that cross but he couldn’t.
We all have our crosses to bear; we often say that when trying to put our own suffering into perspective. Our cross is particular to each one of us, dependent on our circumstances. Some crosses, such as those of illness, we may have no choice over; others we can either receive or reject. Whatever those crosses may be, if we can embrace them willingly, difficult though that may be, and ask for the grace of God to help us bear them we stand a better chance of thriving rather than just surviving.
The cross and suffering loomed large throughout the life of Jesus as the inevitable consequence of his ministry. He sharply put down Peter after he said that the Messiah should not suffer. It was as though St Peter had touched a nerve, that Jesus was back in the wilderness facing the temptation to seek worldly glory and fall under the devil’s sway. Hence the retort ‘Get behind me Satan.’ He would again face the temptation to turn away from suffering in the garden of Gethsemane, where in anguish his sweat fell like drops of blood. He asked that the cup of suffering be taken from him, before resigning himself to the will of the Father.
Jesus gave no illusions to those who would be his followers. To be a Christian would not bring them glory and praise but hardship and suffering. Not a great selling point for a religion, it must be admitted.
But there is great peace of mind from knowing that you are acting in accordance with what you perceive to be God’s will. If you get that right, and answer that big question everything else will follow. St Paul recommends that we offer ourselves to God as a living sacrifice, and not conform to the changeable and fickle ways of the world, but to hold true to higher ideals. By raising our minds above the mundane we can better discern God’s will for us.
And sometimes that might mean going against popular opinion, challenging injustice, standing up to mistreatment and bullying behaviour, putting others first and ourselves last. That can be difficult and leave us isolated, but often by making a stand like those students in Poland, we just need to make a stand, and others may join us.
As Christians we never lead, we simply follow the Master along the path he trod, the selfless way of the cross.
Sermon by Canon Adrian Ling CMP, 23rd August 2020
Readings: Isaiah 22:19-23; Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20
When I meet couples to make bookings for weddings, I have to ask them for some personal details, such as name, address and nationality. I also have to record in the register the names of their father and their occupations. In years gone by, people were identified not just by their own names but by the identity and occupation of their fathers. Many English Surnames that end in ‘son’ or with an ‘s’, originally identified the father, as in Williamson, abbreviated to Williams, which both mean 'son of William'. Surnames beginning with Mac in Scotland, also mean the same, as in Mac Donald, 'son of Donald'. And in Jesus’ time, the prefix ‘bar’, also identified the father, so Simon Barjona, was Simon son of Jonah. Identification is important in order to facilitate conversation. If someone can be labelled we all know who we are talking about.
In Nazareth, Jesus was identified as the carpenter’s son. His fellow townsfolk questioned how he could have pretensions when he spoke in the synagogue, and rejected him. Sometimes he was disrespectfully identified as Mary’s son, implying that the identity of his father was unknown. Away from home, these distinctions would not have helped to identify him, so when Philip speaks about of Jesus to Nathanael he calls him first Jesus of Nazareth, which prompts Nathanael to ask ‘can any good come out of Nazareth?’ When people in Jerusalem ask who the man is causing such a commotion in the triumphal entry into Jerusalem the people reply ‘this is Jesus the prophet of Nazareth.’
‘Who is this?’, is the question the evangelists are trying to answer. Mark says from the beginning that he writes the gospel about 'Jesus, the Son of God', whereas Matthew begins with 'the genealogy of Jesus the Christ, the Son of David'. Jesus wants to know what the people are saying about him: ‘who do people say the Son of Man is?’ he asks the disciples, and their replies are confused. Some say he is John the Baptist, (whom Herod had killed), Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets come back to life. When he questions the disciples as to who they say he is, Peter confesses him to be the Christ, the son of the living God.
The question that Jesus asks the disciples, he asks us too: who do you say I am? We recite in the creed what we say we believe about Jesus. But in order to answer that question honestly we have to know what Jesus means to us. It should be our duty and our joy, as Christians, to know him more intimately, and more completely. We may be reticent and a little embarrassed about sharing our faith, but we need not be. We should feel able to share what we know about Jesus, and why we receive him here in word and sacrament every week, why we need him in our life. Jesus is part of who we are, when Christians are confirmed, the bishop says to the candidate, God has called you by name and made you his own.’ Thus we confirm our identity as children of our heavenly Father.
In St John’s gospel, when the Jews ask Jesus ‘who are you?’ he replies, 'when you have lifted up the Son of Man you will know who I am'; they would find out after his crucifixion and resurrection. They claimed God to be their Father, but Jesus told them, ‘If you had God as your Father, you would love me.’ Instead he said their father was the devil because of their murderous intent. ‘Before Abraham was born,’ he said, ‘I am’ echoing what the voice of God said to Moses from the burning bush. The Jews then picked up stones to kill him but he escaped them.
If we regard God as our Father and consider ourselves his children, then we will love Jesus who is also our brother. And if we love our brother Jesus then we will do what he commands us. If we live our lives by the commands of Jesus then we will speak volumes about Jesus and who he is. However we must be careful not to give way to sin, to destructive and harmful behavior, that might make us appear more like the devil’s children.
To be children of God, is a great realization, for thus we see our common humanity and our equality. But it is also a great responsibility, a lot to live up to.