Sermon by Canon Adrian Ling CMP, Sunday 28th February
Readings: Genesis 22:1-2,9-13,15-18; Romans 8:31-34; Mark 9:2-10
The Australian Cardinal George Pell was falsely accused of a crime he did not commit, but was found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison. He was eventually released on appeal to the High Court, but still spent over a year in prison.
He has chronicled his experience in a journal which has now been published. Reading a prison journal seems quite helpful during lockdown. We might think we have been deprived of much during these times of restrictions, but Pell was deprived of even more. For his own safety he was put into solitary confinement, he was aware of dangerous and disturbed prisoners around him whom he never saw. Anything he requested might take some time before it was received, even a broom to sweep his cell. He had to be patient. Although he received communion from time to time from the lay chaplain, he could not say Mass and had to try to wake up in time to watch Sunday’s Mass at Home at 6am on television.
Although he was innocent and living in great privation, he did not give way to despair or resentment. He did not harbour ill-feeling for his accuser. He met with his lawyers, but did not get obsessed by injustice. He used the time initially like a retreat, and his journal contains his reflections on the Bible readings of the day from his breviary.
The journal shows Pell to be a man of solid faith who takes to heart the saying of St Paul, ‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’ Being sure of the eternal presence and support of God is the ultimate assurance. We know that Christ died for us, and St Paul reminds us that the risen Christ continues to plead for us. He is our advocate, our defence lawyer, in heaven; he knows our human condition from the inside. St John in his first letter says ‘we have one who speaks to the Father in our defence-Jesus Christ, the righteous one.’
Any person appearing in court would be foolish to ignore the advice of their lawyers who are experts in the law. It is equally essential for the Christian to heed the counsel of the Saviour. On the Mount of Transfiguration, the voice from heaven declares ‘this is my beloved Son, listen to him.’ The gospel, the good news of Christ, sets us free because, if we heed it, it will keep us from sin. And if we fall into sin, it points the way to repentance and absolution. As Cardinal Pell, wrote, ‘If Christ is the Son of God, his teaching has a unique authority, and his teaching when lived brings human flourishing.’
He added , ‘When we believe we can improve on Jesus by eliminating the hard teachings or downplaying prayer, faith, and the cross then we should not be surprised that people leave or do not join. A religion that is too easy is a false religion.’
The reading from Genesis, is a hard one. Any parent who attempted to kill their child because God told them to would receive a long jail sentence in a psychiatric wing. The story of the sacrifice of Isaac can give the impression that God is a monster, but the point of the story is the faith of Abraham, the absolute trust of Abraham in God; even to the surrender of his beloved son and heir, Isaac. And for Christians, Isaac is a precursor of Christ. Isaac was not sacrificed, but Jesus the beloved son became the once and for all paschal sacrifice, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
Cardinal Pell worked out swiftly what it would take for him to survive solitary confinement in prison: to keep up a daily programme of prayer and to concentrate on doing what he could do, rather than lamenting what he couldn’t do.
That is good advice for us too. It is good to be back here in church, following the Prime Minister’s announcement. However nothing has changed for us yet, it will remain the same for this month, (unless you are a parent breathing a huge sigh of relief as the children return to school). We are coming towards the end of our sentence, our confinement is drawing to a close, but we have some way to go yet. The end can be all the harder as we long to be free of our restrictions, but we must still be patient, and take Cardinal Pell’s words to heart, we must concentrate on doing what we can do and be thankful for that, rather than lamenting what we cannot do.
In this season of Lent we prepare to celebrate Easter with renewed hope and joy. The Missionaries of Charity in Wagga sent Cardinal Pell a prayer of St Teresa of Calcutta,
‘Remember that the passion of Christ ends always in the joy of the resurrection of Christ. So when you feel in your own heart the suffering of Christ, remember the resurrection has to come. The joy of Easter has to dawn. Never let anything so fill you with sorrow as to make you forget the joy of Christ Risen.’